The hands of my male kin were calloused and grimed. One of my uncles was missing two fingers. These men woke at night to cough up coal dust and fly ash and tobacco tar, and they treated their joint and back pain with a home remedy of beer and whiskey. They refused to use hearing protection and wore hardhats solely because of employer and government mandates, and by age sixty were prone to ask, “What? Why are you mumbling?” Of course, they refused to wear hearing aids. Many of them were also deaf to the voices of people who had a different skin color or religion. They denied that women should have the same rights as men. And yet, to pay for the higher education of sons and daughters alike, they worked overtime in the mill or factory, which they referred to as “the plant.”
The shared identity of these men remained partially mine even while I was teaching at colleges. I kept close my heritage of pride and stubbornness, loyalty to family and charitable duty to neighbors and friends. Yet well before the working class shed me, I tried to distance myself from it. Like most of my peers in the late 1960s and early ’70s, as a teenager I believed I had outgrown home. I danced in stylish rebellion to musicians selected and promoted by record companies and radio stations, to the Rolling Stones and Beatles and Doors, to the beat of millionaires. In John Lennon’s balladic “Working Class Hero,” the darkest of his songs, the former working-class boy sings with concurrent sympathy and rage of a laboring class kept “doped by religion, sex, and TV”—so it can suppose it is “classless and free.” My friends and I sang along, some of us doped by dope, and all of us half deaf and blind to our family and neighbors.
Most of the women in my family and neighborhood were indeed religious, but they were not drugged by their faith. From church sermons and the Bible they drew some of the strength they needed. The men tended to practice their religion perfunctorily or stayed home while their wives and children attended worship services. As for TV, it was consumed soporifically, the way alcohol was consumed—to relax a sore man as he kicked back in an easy chair in his parlor, still haunted by the racket of industrial machinery or the rattling of coal falling through chutes.
Despite their pride, I never knew anyone in my working-class neighborhood who seemed to believe he or she was “classless and free.” One evening when my father and I were in a town, we crossed paths with a man who was wearing a fine suit and expensive shoes. Dad didn’t know the man, but he spat on the concrete and muttered, “You son of a bitch.”
I thought my elders were insensitive to the suffering of people subject to poverty, oppression, and war, and many of them were, but I now cringe when I recall asking my father whether he would change anything if he could live his life over. He replied firmly, “No.” A welder in a coal-fired power plant near the city of Buffalo, he was in his early forties and had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, which had spread incurably into his pelvis and spine. He was in constant pain and still working at the plant with no intention of stopping while he had a family to support. I asked yet another insensitive question: Suppose the fumes, ash, and dust in the plant had caused his cancer, wouldn’t he go to college and try for a better job if he had it to do over again? “No,” he said again. “My friends work at the plant.” The same plant provided me with summer employment. I shoveled coal spilled from conveyors, vacuumed ankle-deep fly ash from the tops of boilers, and swept black dust and grit from concrete floors. I knew that on the days when my father was in too much pain to work, I could find him in one of the maintenance department storage rooms, where his friends had hidden him as they finished his tasks to keep the plant bosses from discovering that an employee was dying on company time and thus failing to generate profit for the men in fine suits and expensive shoes.
One morning, my foreman instructed me to spend the day intercepting coal trucks from Pennsylvania as they approached the gatehouse and to weigh them at a trucking company up the road. Some of the drivers had been selling portions of their loads before reaching the plant. One I caught promised he would never again cheat the power company and asked me to misreport the weight of his load. He told me he had a family to support and would be fired if the coal company learned of his dishonesty. When I later told my father that I had refused to lie, he looked at me as if I might be a changeling. Then he grimaced and stood up from his easy chair—a bottle of Darvon within reach on the end table—changed the television channel, and said, as he turned to study me a bit more, “I didn’t care for that show.”