One night in August 2005, just after I’d moved to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, for a job as a theology professor, I needed beer. To get to the distributor, I drove over a concrete bridge, its four pylons etched with words like “Perseverance” and “Industry” and topped by monumental eagles. Once there, I wandered through the pallets of warm cases trying to find a thirty-pack of PBR until the thin, gruff man behind the counter asked what I was looking for. I told him, he pointed to the right pallet, and I met him at the register.
He asked for ID, and I showed him my Virginia license. He looked me in the eye. “I figured you had to be out of state,” he said as he handed it back. “The young people around here don’t drink Pabst.” I told him they did in Virginia. I didn’t tell him it was because hipsters fetishized white working-class culture. I mentioned instead that I’d just moved here. “Oh yeah? For good?” “Yeah.” “That’s too bad. You should go back. Welcome to one of the worst drug havens in the country.”
I told him I’d heard of the local drug problem. He then expanded upon his point, and began riffing on racist and misogynist themes. He told me there was no nightlife in town because the cops were always out waiting to nab you after you left the bar and tried to drive home. I stood impassively at the counter, hoping his rant would burn out if I didn’t feed it with dialogue. “And the people!” he continued. “Some of the most ignorant, idiotic people anywhere. They’re petty and vindictive, and they got no personality!” When I said I’d just gotten a job teaching at a local college, he told me to stay one semester, then get out. He was getting out, he said. “I might not be here next time you come in. I’m going to Arkansas.” At that, I bid him goodnight, threw my beer in the trunk, and went home.
The next time I came back, weeks or months later, he was still there.
Wilkes-Barre is in the middle of Northeast Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley, guarded by high ridges on either side of the Susquehanna River. Its nickname is the Diamond City, a reference to the “black diamonds” of anthracite coal once mined there. I came to the Valley in fulfillment of a longstanding dream. I had grown up in the suburbs of Buffalo in the years when industry was leaving. I went to college in Washington D.C., then graduate school in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I was initiated as a member of the bourgeois-intellectual class—a resident of that archipelago of prosperous cities and college towns where people drive Subarus and subscribe to the New York Times but not their local papers. I never meant to come back to the Rust Belt. But I was committed to the academic profession, and Wilkes-Barre was the one place where I could practice it, because the college there was the one place that offered me a job. Graduate school didn’t train me for life in cities where there weren’t cafes filled with people reading or typing or grousing about David Brooks. Why should it? The brain drain is meant to carry people in one direction only, away from towns like Buffalo and Wilkes-Barre to towns like Charlottesville and D.C., not the reverse.
Hearing the beer-store clerk’s plan to escape the Valley deepened my misgivings about moving there. After I brought my PBR home that night, I called my girlfriend, who had recently moved to Berkeley to pursue a PhD, and said to her, “Two years. I can stay two years at most. Hold me to that.”
In the meantime, living in the Valley was too often synonymous with drinking. The local culture around alcohol is, shall we say, well developed. Every man I know who grew up in Wilkes-Barre in the 1970s and ’80s has a wistful memory of being sent to the corner bar at an early age to pick up a six-pack for his father. Older men tell stories of their dads going off to work in the mines, metal lunch pail in hand, and returning at the end of the day with the pail full of beer. St. Patrick’s Day is a two-week binge. The parades begin as early as March 3 and erupt into frequent brawls and occasional stabbings. One year, at Scranton’s parade, some drunk picked a fight with a horse. When I ask a former student who left the Valley after graduation what she thinks the culture of the region is, her first words are “binge drinking.”
Alcohol defined the contours of my social and professional life. After my first faculty meeting, the president of the college held a reception for us on campus—full bar. I ordered an Old Grand-Dad on the rocks. The bartender threw a few cubes in the glass and then filled it to the top: a triple, at least. As the semester continued, I often met with colleagues for happy hour at bars near the college that offered dollar drafts, and on Fridays, free pizza and pasta. On Sundays I went alone to a pizza place to watch football, drink twenty-two-ounce glasses of Labatt, and exchange epithets about the games with whoever else was sitting at the bar. At the end of my first year, I learned that the college always sponsored a kegger on the night before graduation. Graduates, professors, and parents played beer pong and ate pretzels out of paper boats, downing pitcher after pitcher. At one of these events, late in the night, the mayor, an alumnus, showed up with his entourage. One of his hangers-on, a beefy middle-aged guy in a nylon warmup jacket over his dress shirt, muscled past me to the head of the beer line to grab a couple bottles for him and His Honor.
My two years there became ten, then eleven. I applied for other teaching jobs, far away, without luck. Every year, I cursed the town. I got tenure. Friends who cursed the town right along with me got married, had kids, bought homes. The graduates I toasted at the keg party left and found their fortunes in the sort of places I wished I could be, places with bookstores and public transit. Places with, I don’t know, a Whole Foods. Places where there was more to do than drink. At the same time, I felt guilty about wanting to leave. I had survived the academic job market’s brutal caprice. Many talented friends from graduate school were not so lucky. Besides, I had grown up outside of a crumbling steel town. Who was I to turn my nose up at a crumbling coal town? And what did my enlightened liberal, democratic values mean if not that the clerk across the beer-store counter was my fellow citizen and brother?
My desire both to belong in Wilkes-Barre and to escape it reflected the conflicting cultural purposes of drinking. Alcohol is a social lubricant, easing conversation and widening circles of friendship. But drinking culture also reinforces boundaries around who belongs and who doesn’t. It polices the barriers between us, including race and gender, sexual orientation and income. Most of us have a subconscious alarm that rings when we take a few steps into a bar that’s the wrong place for us, where we’ll be eyed suspiciously or harassed or worse. We know where we don’t belong. And for reasons to do with my academic aloofness and the class distance I had traversed since leaving Buffalo, I found it hard to belong in the Valley. Partly, I didn’t try hard enough. But it also wouldn’t have mattered if I had lived there the rest of my life. In this city where many people leave but few move in, I would always be a newcomer, not from there. Of course, I didn’t want to be from there. Still, it was where I lived, and I didn’t want to be a permanent alien, either. I drank to fit in, and I drank because I didn’t.
On a typical Friday afternoon during my time in Wilkes-Barre, after the curriculum-committee meeting adjourns, my friend G. and I walk across the street to a bar whose name is variously spelled Senunas’, Senunas’s, or Senuna’s. The place isn’t busy yet. We cross the ceramic-tiled floor and settle in at two stools at the corner of the bar. We’re flanked by solo drinkers, men watching other men shout at each other on ESPN. The TVs are muted and closed-captioned to clear aural space for the jukebox, not that anyone has spared a dollar to make it play.
We each place a ten-dollar bill on the bar and order a lager. We don’t say “Yuengling lager,” because in this region, where it’s brewed, that would be redundant. The bartender, M., is a student of mine. She pours our beers and slides our glasses in front of us—each of them an ounce or two short of a pint. She picks up our tens and then sets down a stack of bills and coins totaling $7.75 in front of each of us. The other men sitting at the bar—all of us white, paunchy except for G., and between thirty and sixty years old—have similar stacks in front of them.
G. and I talk institutional politics, and intermittently exchange small talk with a grey-mustached drinker sitting next to me. He says something, and we respond, but we keep him at arm’s length. We’re there to talk to each other. Halfway through our drinks, M. sets shot glasses, upside down, in front of me and G. The grey-mustached drinker has just bought us a round, and the shot glasses signal what we’re owed—and what we’ll owe. M. pulls four singles and two quarters from his stack.
Now I have to talk to him. And not just through this round. Two rounds, because now I’m on the hook for one. I can’t bail after I finish the one he buys me. At least, I think I can’t. That would violate the way of things here. Owing him ties me to him. And I don’t want that tie. I would much prefer to settle the debt immediately, or even to act as if I don’t know how this economy works, say thanks as I get up off the stool to leave, and forget I owe him anything. Instead, I grit my teeth, buy him a round, and bear it. We make small talk: sports, work, where we’re from. M. takes a few dollars and coins from my stack. I leave her the rest.
I never initiated this sort of exchange. On a different day, at a different bar, I would walk away without reciprocating. And, over time, I did that more and more. When I finally moved away to Dallas, Texas, miserable in my academic job and ready to follow the career of my Berkeley girlfriend, now my wife, I was several beers in the red.