My grandpa lives in a little tin-roofed shack outside a small town in western North Carolina called Elkin. Elkin was a vibrant furniture-making hub until all the factories were all shuttered and sent to Brazil. My dad worked at the plant, my uncle worked at the plant, and my grandfather worked at the plant until he decided to devote himself to a more lumpen existence of subsistence farming, drinking, and moonshine-running.
The young people from Elkin tend to move away to nearby marginally sexy cities like Charlotte and Greensboro. Those that stick around town take jobs in rest homes and senior centers, wiping butts, dispensing pills, and giving sponge baths, or else devote themselves to perfecting bathtub methamphetamine or cultivating marijuana.
Wilkes County has the highest number of pot growers per capita in North Carolina. Every year, the DEA fly their infrared heat-seeker planes over the county’s lush hills and hollers and make dozens of arrests, and every year the pot-growers get out on bail and await their subsequent arrest the same time next year. Like much of what passes for justice, it’s a huge waste of everyone’s time.
Today, downtown Elkin is just a collection of dirty old storefronts. The town’s only newspaper, The Elkin Tribune, is made up almost entirely of obituaries and syndicated conservative columns. The streets of downtown are empty aside from a senior citizens shambling to the pharmacy to pick up Medicare prescriptions. There’s a super Wal-Mart and a decent BBQ place, but not much else.
It’s nothing compared to the nearby mecca of Asheville, “Portland of the East,” two hours further west into the Blue Ridges. While Elkin has the initial shoots of a hippie-vacationer-economy (a couple of wineries, an arts and crafts shop), Asheville draws people from the world over. In Asheville, the breweries are all local and organic and the sidewalks are paved with kombucha, crusty jugglers and fire breathers. Asheville is so flush with Northern vacation money that it is barely Southern anymore.
Much of the rural South has a reputation for being an impenetrable stronghold of evangelical family values. Knowing my grandparents' yeomen po'white roots and class profile, it wouldn’t be unfair to stereotype them as god-fearing country people. But go past the little packed Baptist churches any Sunday morning in the last fifty years and these leathery-skinned nonbelievers were sitting on their front porch, quietly abstaining from the orgy of evangelism.
About a year ago, they had a bad car wreck with a girl who was texting. My gaunt Abe Lincoln-like grandpa was fine but my grandma sustained some injuries she would never recover from. Six months later she was dying. To paraphrase some Emerson I read once: As we grow older we grow less and less strong. What could once be bounced back from becomes the straw that can break the camel's back. But I never heard her cry out Jesus's name.
I've always identified more with my grandma’s cynical country-fried darkness than I have with my grandfather’s cheery "take it one day at a time" optimism. This hard, melancholy woman spent her final years on Earth lamenting the fact that my father had died before she did. Without ever reading French philosophers, she seemed to intuitively grasp the nasty brutishness of life on this planet. She didn't know how to read, so she couldn't have gotten it from Sartre. “She’s the salt of the earth,” my mother called her, and I think that term describes her the best.
Now that my grandma is gone, my grandpa lives alone in their little tin-roofed house, where they lived together for fifty years. It gets lonesome. He says he misses her.
He gets up at four in the morning and goes to bed around eight. He subsists mostly off of boiled turnips and collard greens. He refuses to accept help from elderly assistance organizations like Meals on Wheels, but when I come to visit him bearing a big bucket of KFC chicken, he devours it ravenously, looking like those Andean mountain climbers who lose themselves to cannibalism.
His days are spent in the service of that most underrated and important of life skills—the passing of time. He flips on the TV and watches the NASCAR races. He goes out on the front porch to check on the weather. He takes potshots at the groundhogs that are eating up his garden. He’s 91 years old and still keeps a six-pack of Coors Lite in the refrigerator. Mostly though, he just stares out the window. The arrival of the mailman is the most eventful ten seconds of his day.
This is my grandpa’s bedroom. Look at that raggedy quilt, that analog telephone, that curated wardrobe of flannels. The hipster aesthetic was clearly appropriated from the rural elderly. This is the bedroom of someone who’s always lived with open windows and kerosene heaters—someone who’s never felt the dull 21st century whoosh of central air-conditioning. This is the bedroom of a man who’s never touched a personal computing device or logged onto the World Wide Web. Unless someone prints it out and brings it to him, he will never see this article.
My grandpa keeps this porcelain revolver on the kitchen counter, beside his hankerchiefs and rusty buckknives. My uncle gave it to him to pick up and brandish wildly if anyone ever tried to break in. Of course he’s never had to use it—everyone sleeps with their doors open out in the country.
He keeps an antique shotgun over his bedroom door. The shotgun was passed down to him by his grandfather, which makes it well over 100 years old. The twin black hammers are ornately forged, like something out of the Civil War. We take it and go out into the lumpy red-clay field behind his house to shoot cans. His backyard looks like a Walker Evans photograph of the Depression 30s—rundown sheds, lean-tos, clotheslines, a charred-out oil drum. He takes me over to one of the biggest sheds—the ground around it is all pocked through with holes. “Damn Groundhogs. I’m almost out of shells from taking shots at them.”
He loads the cartridges into the antique gun then cocks the hammer and fires two shots. He misses, hitting the clay behind the can. Dogs bark in the distance. Now you take a shot, he says. I prop the shotgun against my shoulder. It feels good. I pull back the hammer. Fire. A miss. I pull back the other hammer and fire. KA-POW! A can goes tumbling backwards.
In January, I wrote a piece of reportage for VICE about a little upstate New York community called Oniontown that has been stigmatized for 100 years for their simple Appalachian way of life. After the article came out, I received a flurry of angry mail from people from the towns around Oniontown who didn’t like the idea of a “Williamsburg journalist” coming upstate to dredge up racist, classist unpleasantness. No one likes their dirty laundry being aired, especially by someone living in New York City.
But there was a strange corollary between the stereotypes rural people have about New York City and vice versa. If you live in the country, you're a hillbilly. If you live in Brooklyn, you're a hipster. The truth is: people live in New York City and in rural areas for a million different reasons, from a million different backgrounds. This world is a crazy heterogeneous mix of people living lives, doing different things.
But the difference between the North and the South is that in the North run-down trailers, loose pitbulls, and burning trash somehow elicit attention, become the objects of fascination, while in the South the landscape of rural poverty is so common that it doesn't elicit so much as a shrug.