Fear & self-loathing in America’s Rust Belt
A new series of personal essays about job loss, mental health, and the undying pursuit of art.
When we drove out of the mountains that morning it was hot, the sun climbing higher in the sky, heating up the plants and the air around us and the metal of our car as it barreled down a neck of Lincoln Highway woven like thread through the Pennsylvania Laurel Highlands. Ethan was in his car seat, chatting away, my wife Michelle and I both quizzing him about our weekend stay in the mountains — often asking if we had seen a black bear while hiking two days earlier. “Yes we did!” he kept answering, a certain electricity in his words.
Our cabin that weekend was buried deep in Lin Run’s cool woods, beneath a canopy of tall old trees. Cell towers sparsely dotted the mountain, like hair on a balding scalp, and my phone had no service until we hit the main road, nearly 10 miles away. We were blissfully out of reach. For four days I didn’t check email — either personal or work-related. And during that time I felt the muscles in my neck uncoil. The anxiety that normally hung in my chest like a lingering cold was absent.
Michelle and I had stayed up late each night after putting Ethan to sleep. We talked and drank beer under a clear black sky next to raging campfires built from wood we collected on hikes during the day. We talked about everything. But our last night, we talked a lot about the future. With Ethan’s third birthday just a month and a half away, we talked about wanting a bigger family – and how Ethan would make such a great big brother.
For us this was a precarious topic, because Ethan’s entry into the world was marked by a two-week stint in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Pittsburgh’s Allegheny General Hospital. But we were finally feeling ready.
Born six weeks early, Ethan still needed time for his lungs to fully develop after delivery. So as soon as he was born the nurses had to take him away in an incubator, drain the fluid from his lungs to help him breathe better, and keep him under close observation. So after waiting nine months to see and hold our son, we waited some more. Since he shared the NICU with a dozen other babies facing equal or far greater challenges, visiting hours were limited to once every two hours for 20 minutes. We had to scrub in and scrub out each time we saw him. Only two people could visit at a time. So Michelle and I took turns escorting our family in and out to meet him. Depending on how well he was doing, we often just got to hold his finger through the opening in the incubator. We never got to hold him — post delivery — in that euphoric moment you see in old Merry Melodies cartoons, where the father runs around plugging cigars into his friends’ mouths while the mother presents the new baby to the gathered crowd.
On that Monday in June, however, as we left our mountain cabin — nearly three years since Ethan’s premature birth — we resigned that we would figure things out, make it all work, no matter how unstable the economy or how fragile our introduction to parenthood had been. Then, as we wound on the highway, my cell service returned. Voicemail notification after voicemail notification chirped from my phone. I handed it to Michelle so she could listen while I continued chatting with Ethan about our adventures.
“It’s someone named Tom from your work,” Michelle said. “He needs to talk with you as soon as possible.” I looked at her blankly for a moment, then realized who had called. It was the director of publications at the nonprofit where I worked. Before I left the magazine offices for the weekend, our editorial director — a man we’ll call Kevin — asked me if I could come in a for a post-training meeting that Monday. The magazine staff had recently been quarantined for days in training sessions concocted by a consulting firm hired to help the organization through the economic crisis (our portion dealt with improving ‘content delivery’ for our customers, and made me wish I was being waterboarded). When I told Kevin I had my vacation planned, he seemed insistent that I attend. After informing him that I wouldn’t be available, we decided a phone call would work if the staff needed my input. “We’ll just call you if we have any questions,” Kevin said.
I decided to pull into the parking lot of a roadside antique shop so that I could get out of the car and return Tom’s call. The first time I called, his phone went straight to voicemail. I left a message. A couple minutes later my phone rang. It was Tom. He asked me how I was doing, then apologized for interrupting my vacation. He then launched into a monologue about the state of the magazine industry, followed by an another monologue about the challenges currently facing the auto industry (note: the organization where I worked as a staff writer/editor reported on the auto industry in its publications). My stomach dropped. I was 99.9% sure where this phone call was headed. And then, after nearly five minutes of talking, he unveiled the reason for his call: “I’m sorry to inform you that you got caught up in this latest round of workforce reductions. But I want you to understand this has nothing to do with your performance.”
What I heard: You no longer have the means to support your family.
A bolt of panic shot through my body as Tom continued shitting HR-speak from his mouth, repeating phrases like “skill set” and “moving forward” until I eventually tuned him out. I felt lightheaded. Stunned. Terrified. I had spent the last five years of my life toiling away in a cubicle for this organization, working 50+ hours a week writing and editing copy that was often so dull I wished someone would run into my office and stab me in the balls just so I would remember I was alive.
At my job I did as I was told. Swallowed my pride. Commuted 75 miles each day, five days a week. Dressed business casual. Chipped in for co-workers’ birthday lunches at the Olive Garden. Talked about sports. Aspired to bullshit promotions that were dangled like carrots over a pit of knives. All in exchange for a salary and benefits, a means of survival for myself and my family. I did it for love, for my family, for our happiness. But it always felt like I had traded my soul to sustain our life. I hated my job and in recent years my self-loathing had become unbearable.
The thought that ruminated in my mind, over and over, was that I settled. That I sold out my truth — the pursuit of art (i.e. writing, music) — for some weird trap. As a result, I felt that every minute I spent at that place was an absolute waste of time. But each day I sat, not alive but not quite dead either. I was undead, like a zombie banging my mashed-up knuckles on a keyboard full of junk food crumbs. Fuck. But I stayed because technically, it was a writing job. And in Pittsburgh, the once-decaying heart of America’s Rust Belt, jobs like that are scarce. But that justification only works for so long. Then my thoughts came crashing down to Earth. And Tom was still talking.
“Sandi from HR will be calling you after we hang up,” he said. “She’ll go over COBRA and severance information, and any other questions you have.” Then, as a final offering, he told me I could call him if I had any questions. I got the sense he was attempting to channel compassion, but it sounded more like he had just swallowed a burp. I wanted to destroy him. Pull his teeth out with pliers and grind his ears off with a fucking rock, send the fleshy scraps back to him three weeks later in a blood-smeared envelope with a Post-It note that read: “Turns out I don’t need these after all. Oops.”
Then I looked over my shoulder at our car idling in the gravel lot, Michelle playing with Ethan, smiling at me when our eyes met. I thought about the conversation we had the night before, how hopeful we both were about the future. And now, everything had just changed.
Up next: Fear and Self-Loathing In America’s Rust Belt, Part II
[Illustration via James Blagden]