Meet You in the Middle: Witnessing societal cracks across fly-over country
By Shay McNeal
Shay McNeal. Image provided.
Back in June I committed to a business meeting of two days’ duration in the western part of the United States. I came to dread the trip, which is unlike me, but I determined I would make something special out of my dilemma, so I refused a plane ticket and chose to take a road trip instead. This would give me an opportunity to turn my travel from the sky to a more leisurely trip sojourning through “fly-over” country instead. Much to my amazement, with pad in hand, my willing but surprised husband and our giant schnauzer in tow we actually departed South Carolina early one quiet morning from East Bay bound for the west. No, Horace Greely was not our companion on the trip, but his words often rang in my ears as each tire rotation put distance between us and my beloved Lowcountry and the East Coast.
The events of the last ten days, as you will see, were so troubling that they continue to resonate with me each morning as I open my eyes, and these same scenes also flit past my drowsy eyes while I drop off to sleep. The emotions these scenarios have lodged in my psyche are still intense and as a result some uneasy sleep has taken me prisoner of late.
We traversed three time zones and 12 states covering three regions of the U.S. that offered me the opportunity to interview as many willing participants as I could during the span of ten days. My main objective that fed my desire to make the road trip was to encounter as many people as possible in an attempt to understand the atmosphere that presently exists in “fly-over America.” I made a special effort to engage with self-proclaimed liberals, conservatives and independents as well as a couple who simply did not give a flip and were just looking for their next dose of mind-numbing drugs.
My good fortune rendered me citizens who were black, white, Asian, Hispanic and Indian from several tribes. The youngest participant was a very smart fellow who had just graduated from high school, and the eldest, a lovely 81-year-old woman named Rosey who reminded me of my great grandmother. I wanted a taste of the mindset in these numerous regions so I could try to get an understanding — cursory at best — of what people are thinking about the state of their neighborhoods as well as the state of the nation itself.
Each interviewee was asked open-ended questions like “How do you feel the nation is doing these days?” “Next, what’s your biggest concern?” I did not interrupt them as they opined. I let them go unaided. My husband served as a casual observer. One of my interviews took place on the front porch of a man in the mountains of North Georgia who could barely entertain the notion of talking with his sister anymore because she suffers from “Trump Derangement Syndrome” and they have agreed to “just not talk for a while.” Next was a 7-Eleven worker in Alabama who expressed frustration over “nobody wants to work,” adding, “They just take the checks and come in here to steal.” Urging them to elaborate on their comments was not difficult — they wanted to vent.
When we arrived in Memphis, I was astonished. The graciousness of the old Memphis was nowhere in sight. What had replaced it was a filthy city with many aimless, sad people walking about. At a gas station in Arkansas, feelings ran deep for one interviewee about these “illegal immigrants taking so much away from me and my family.” When pressed he said, “There are not any good politicians anymore. Not like there used to be. I don’t trust them.”
Next stop, Whole Foods in Oklahoma City, which by the way, is a beautiful city for the most part. I engaged a charming 30-something, a self-identified liberal, with two absolutely beautiful daughters aged three and six. I felt like I had taken the lid off a quietly steaming kettle, and what followed was stream of worry and fear. She is a physical therapist, and her husband is a physician’s assistant. She says they are confused about the mask mandates; one child is in private school and has no mask requirement but the other in public school does. She is afraid the public school will suddenly shut down and then what? She blames bad leadership all around — both state and federal. They feel all their sacrifices made during the hardest of the pandemic times as health care workers were not earnestly appreciated. She expressed that they felt it was just another ad campaign to make everyone feel good for a moment. In sum, she says they feel lost and are yearning for real leadership out of these difficult times with so much to reveal itself yet to come. I was moved by this smart, articulate and impassioned woman.
Next stop, Albuquerque. Everything is locked up in Walgreens and CVS. Antique stores have most merchandise under lock and key — so much so it took ten minutes for the salesperson to finally find the key for the one out of 60 vendors from whom I wished to purchase. Explanation theft — theft and no punishment. Later that day, I wandered into a CVS and a very nice young Hispanic fellow explained to me, when I queried why was everything locked up, “See that bag of popcorn — just grab a bag and I’ll bring you a chair — the show starts around five every day.” I must have looked puzzled, as I was, and he hurried on, “They swoop things off every shelf into backpacks, bags, and run. We don’t call the police and we don’t try to stop them.” I just shook my head and said, “Stay safe.” He said, “Yes ma’am, you stay safe too.” Across the street, the CVS had an armed guard when you walked into their store.
The next day we went to get gas and a man with body art adorning him from head to toe was accompanied by his likewise-decorated female friend. My husband had just gone in the store to get some coffee. The tattooed “gentleman,” as they say today, suddenly moved toward me, glaring at me while pushing aside his woman. Never taking his eyes off me, he searched each pocket in a frenzied way, and for the first time in a long while I felt white-hot fear course through my body. She glared at me as he approached, and I suddenly, never breaking our locked-on gaze at each other, pushed the door of the car open and held out a ten-dollar bill. Confusion reigned.
She quickly ran toward me and grabbed it as I saw him take a black object out of the last pocket he had rummaged through. Waving her aside, he kept his eyes locked on me. She, on the other hand, held on to that ten-dollar bill like a madwoman. I won in the end and successfully wrenched it away. Now she was much angrier, and a small crowd was gathering. It occurred to me that they were fascinated to maybe have the privilege of a seeing a woman die in front of them. At this moment, I yelled out to him, “Are you okay? You look like you need help. It looks like she was going to take your money — she was eyeing the other direction to go with it. I think you need it much more than she does.” At this moment, Claude exited the store with a look of panic on his face as I waved him off. Mr. Body-art, still locked on my eyes, was slowly signaling Ms. Body-art to collect the money and by God return to him. She did and he and I kept our eyes locked as Claude reentered the car. Driving away we heard high words fly; they were fighting about the money.
Next stop, a cow pasture in the panhandle. Here I met a young man who had just graduated from high school. Smart as a whip, he was the quarterback, wrestling champ and an excellent student. I showed a document to him and he said, “I’m sorry but I cannot read cursive.” My husband actually thought he did not hear him right. I was bewildered. He was on his way to college. “What are they doing, not teaching you cursive?” sprang from me just short of a primal scream. His quick repartee was pointed: “Ma’am, they are setting us up for failure.” The whole scene was taking place on the Cherokee reservation, and it felt like I was in a B-grade movie. I have offered to teach him and he has accepted — we start tutoring next week. He will be able to read historical documents. Zoom might be useful after all.
A quick word about the reservation. They just built a state-of-the-art medical center and the Cherokee nation pays for all medicines and procedures — even if you have to go to Tulsa or elsewhere for another hospital. They take care of wheelchairs, chair lifts and any medical devices. Each parent only pays $2,000 a semester for their children’s education at college and they send generous stipend checks to all tribal members a couple of times a year. I’ll never look at their casinos the same way again. But there is something that could threaten them. Busloads of unauthorized immigrants have recently been dropped off in Tahlequah. These reservation inhabitants are kind people but worried that these people will not be made to learn English as they had to and that intermarriage will financially burden the nation, among other concerns. (Overall illegal or unauthorized immigration has grown from 1,990,000 in the U.S. in 1990 to 11,390,000 in 2018 according to Facts USA.) The U.S. signed an agreement in 1942 to protect and honor the culture of American and Alaskan Indian tribes and laws. Who gave permission to place these folks on Indian reservations? No one out there knows.
Upon encountering these mostly cooperative individuals all along the way who were willing to spend a few minutes out of their busy day indulging a stranger with some penetrating questions, I ultimately was left with two words — so many are feeling abandoned and lost. What became abundantly clear is that my questions were striking a chord within them that needed plucking. As we rolled back into a landscape filled with lush trees and abundant water running through rivers for which I had become increasing grateful, because we had passed dried-up river and creek beds in numbers so large as to be beyond belief, I was filled with guilt and grateful to get home. It is one thing to hear about the lack of water but believe me it is quite something to see it in full relief as dust rises from the parched beds when the wind stirs. We must meet in the middle and acknowledge that we need to support and respect each other. I keep reminding anyone who will hear my plaintive call — a country divided will fall into the abyss it creates. Then only our adversaries win. Think about it.
Shay McNeal is assistant publisher and editor at large of the Charleston Mercury; she divides her time between Northern Virginia and Charleston and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.