A Sense of Purpose​

Media274Why would anyone want to be a coal miner? It’s certainly respectable work, but it’s also dangerous and comes with a high probability of medical problems. I gained a little bit of unexpected insight into this question at the end of a book I recently finished.

The book is Elsewhere, a memoir by Richard Russo about growing up and spending his adult life dealing with his obsessive-compulsive mother. Russo is one of my favorite novelists. Nobody’s Fool, Straight Man, Empire Falls (for which he won a Pulitzer), Bridge of Sighs, The Risk Pool – all are richly engrossing, humorous, entertaining stories with complex characters, usually set in small towns in upstate New York or New England.

Russo himself grew up in Gloversville, NY, which served as the blueprint for the fictional towns in which his novels take place. Gloversville got its name from the fact that it used to manufacture a large percentage of the leather gloves (and other leather products) worn by refined ladies and gentlemen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The town had a large factory which took in animal hides and turned them into fine apparel. As automation and cheap foreign labor grew in manufacturing importance through the middle and late 20th century, the town’s primary economic engine died and with it, in many ways, the town itself.

I can relate to this. A few years ago when the Great Recession was still going strong, I listened to an NPR piece on what they considered to be the poster child for a dying US city: Dayton, Ohio, my home town. When I was growing up, Frigidaire, GM, and NCR all had major manufacturing plants in Dayton (NCR’s corporate headquarters were there, too). Not anymore. The only large employers remaining from my youth are Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and two universities (U. Dayton and Wright State U.).

I left Dayton at 17 to go to university in Rochester, and with the exception of a few months after I graduated, I’ve never gone back except to visit. Russo left Gloversville to go to school in Arizona and also never returned except to visit.

Near the very end of Elsewhere, Russo relates a discussion he had on one of those visits with his cousin, who never left Gloversville. They and their friends were talking about the worst jobs they had ever had. Russo’s cousin talked about working in the beam room of the town’s leather factory. This is where raw animal skins – still with pieces of rotting flesh attached and often infested with maggots – came in and went through the initial stages of treatment (and remember, this is pre-air conditioning). The hides were very heavy and the stench was unbelievable.

The chemicals used to remove hair and bits of flesh from the hides will do the exact same things to your skin if they come into contact with it. Rubber gloves were provided, but that made lifting and maneuvering the (now wet) hides extremely difficult, so many of the workers didn’t bother with them. Even wearing the gloves didn’t really keep the nasty chemicals away. Their hands would itch horribly; their skin would peel off. Cancer rates in the town were much higher than the national average.

Yet Russo’s cousin expressed no bitterness or rancor; indeed, he and almost everyone in the town were grateful to have had the work. A common sentiment was, “If the factory weren’t here, what else would we do?” And after the factory closed down, they found out what they would do: not much.

(By the way, I don’t want to give the impression that Richard Russo’s works are all fraught with troubling concepts and emotional turmoil. His novels are laced with humor and generally have a much lighter tone than his memoir.)

I found myself wondering who in the world would stay in a place like that. Russo describes some of his Gloversville friends talking about how their parents and grandparents are buried in the town, and asking how they could possibly just up and relocate. The people in Gloversville, like people everywhere, wanted their children to grow up there and live close by. I can understand wanting to be close to your kids, but under these circumstances, wouldn’t you want them to go someplace where their opportunities were brighter? Which are more important, deceased ancestors or living children? Why would anyone want to stay there, let alone encourage their children to stay there? I guess some people are rooted in the land they call home, while some of us are happier scattering around the world.

The modern equivalent to Gloversville can be seen in places like West Virginia. The emotional reaction to what the locals perceive to be an attack on coal goes way beyond whether reducing our consumption of coal would be good or bad for the economy and the world. It’s personal. Mining coal is a dangerous, back-breaking, filthy job, and these people are enormously proud of having done this work for generations in order to provide the energy that allows the rest of us to lead fairly comfortable lifestyles. It is understandable that they would bristle at evidence indicating that burning all that coal is also causing serious long-term environmental problems.

What I have a harder time understanding is why someone in this situation wouldn’t jump at the chance to allow their children to move on – and probably away – to something better (to be sure, some people in coal country do jump at the chance, but many do not, and some actively resist). Mining coal is certainly honest work; every dollar is earned several times over. But it is still dangerous, back-breaking, and filthy. I might be willing to do that, but only so I could earn enough money to send my kids somewhere where they wouldn’t have to.

Russo’s book helped me to understand these people’s perspectives a bit better (not completely, but better). He describes the pride the factory workers in Gloversville had in the fact that they were doing hard work and generating something of value. He writes:

It wasn’t just the mills that were abandoned when the good times – if that’s what they were – stopped rolling. What’s also lost…is part of your identity, your reason for being, a shared sense of purpose that’s hard to quantify. People who make things are often proud of what they produce…. But sometimes people are so proud of what they make that they willingly overlook its true cost.

When the leather factory was up and running, the people of Gloversville were Media275

useful. Losing that sense of purpose is devastating. That I can understand.

But there’s a whole world out there with lots of opportunities to feel useful. I don’t think I will ever understand clinging to one way of life – and encouraging my children to do the same – just because it’s the one practiced in the place where I happened to be born. That’s like continuing to do something in the face of mounting evidence that it’s counterproductive just because “We’ve always done it this way.” It’s a rationalization, not a reason.

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