Photo: Don O'Brien
Photo: Don O'Brien

Unprepared in Appalachia

When I was a freshman in college, I joined a Christian community service mission called Project Appalachia. I’d never done anything like this before, and I never have again, but my personality felt newly changeable, capable of growing in any direction. I was sure I could find a large group of like-minded, potentially lifelong friends. I could be a halfway-decent person, embodying my school’s philosophy that the most important education is that of the heart. I could choose a theme to live by; friendship and selflessness sounded pretty good.

At least, I felt I could have been this changed person if I hadn’t decided to commute from my parents’ house each day to save money on a dorm. Being a commuter meant I was always oriented towards home. I tended to arrive at school with seconds to spare, I kept my car keys on a lanyard close to my body, and I avoided eye contact as I crossed the parking lot. I wasn’t eating, sleeping, and showering within a few inches of my classmates, so I barely existed on campus. A Spring Break trip to repair flood-damaged homes in West Virginia seemed to promise both instant belonging and greater purpose.

So I wrote an application essay (“I’m no Norm Abram, but I did put together my own IKEA bookshelf, and I’m eager to learn more about home repair!”) and emailed it to the Community Service Coordinator, Amanda “Bibby” Bibberman. Bibby responded with a welcome email, changing up the fonts and colors of every line.

“Before long, the Fox will be your home away from home,” she typed in princess-y purple script. “I know we’re going to be friends,” she added in a yellow typewriter font that was hard to read. I took a tour of the Foxington Center for Community Service and Student Outreach, a.k.a “The Fox,” a glass-fronted office suite decorated with orange furniture and exactly the black-and-white photography you’d expect. I received a Bob the Builder t-shirt, I shook Bibby’s hand. She was a large young woman who slicked her hair back in a wet style so tight it tugged at the corners of her eyes. At our evening meetings, she often sat in a corner looking tired and let others carry the conversation, though she had always planned an activity, like make-your-own sundaes or a too-easy craft.

It took me some time to get a reading on the other members. There were 15 or 20 of them, mostly girls, dressed in ordinary mall clothes or college sweatshirts. Some of them were freshmen like me and didn’t know anyone, while some of them had been involved with the Foxington Center for a year or two and felt at home enough to curl up on the orange sofas, hugging pillows, their eyes lit by the day’s discussion about poverty. Their words were so lightly placed, like a hand on an arm, that what they said almost seemed reasonable:

“Economically unprepared people have something to offer you, too. It might be a song, a story, or a home remedy. They might even carve you something out of wood.”

“They have vibrant personalities, and that’s how they secure a place in their communities.”

“Economically unprepared people are brave souls, braver than we can understand.”

Lauren, a social work major, talked about a homeless woman who frequented the Loaves and Fishes Food Bank and had told all the volunteers there about an itchy infection under her breasts. “She didn’t know that you shouldn’t tell complete strangers about a fungus on your body,” Lauren said, as if apologizing both to the woman and for her. A gentle group discussion followed, though I wasn’t sure why – didn’t everyone know what itchiness felt like? Hadn’t everyone at some point begged another person to consider her rash: “Have you ever seen anything like this? Do you think it’ll go away?” Besides, what else were you supposed to talk about with squeaky-clean, too-healthy Lauren as she tried to help you, her cheeks dimpling under her pageboy cap?

“If you ever feel uncomfortable when engaging in social work, just try to imagine how the unprepared person must feel,” someone suggested.

And that was the focus of our meetings: not to learn how to cut drywall or use a screw gun, but to understand what it was like to have no security, to lack preparedness, to be slightly “off.” We played Twister as a metaphor for financial instability, contorting our bodies and struggling to hold our balance while Bibby worked the spinner. We blindfolded ourselves and pinned tails to a paper donkey while discussing how economically unprepared people often had limited vision – sometimes, they couldn’t see a way out even if it was directly in front of them.

We even pretended to be poor ourselves. Bibby passed out a checklist titled, “Could You Survive in Poverty?” which posed questions like, “Do you know how to get someone out of jail? Do you know how to keep your clothes from being stolen at a Laundromat? Do you know how to use a knife as scissors?”

For a week, you were supposed to live by the checklist as best you could. Unless you had a health problem, you were supposed to skip at least one meal a day. (For safety reasons, Bibby asked us not to try using a knife as scissors.) I thought most people would opt out of this assignment, but at the next meeting, everyone except me read aloud her reflections from rainbow mini-journals Bibby had passed out. They had left their dorm windows open to the March chill, they had fasted, they had worn flip flops to class as if they didn’t own cuddly Uggs. Someone had taken a cold shower, and she described how her wet hair froze into icy ropes as she crossed the Commons. Everyone listened hard, shared a moment of silent prayer, and after a reasonable interval, made plans to prepare brownies from a boxed mix.

I had left my empty mini-journal in my car, and I slipped away from the meeting as soon as I could, crossing the now empty commuter parking lot with my key poking out of my fist in case I needed to defend myself. I couldn’t stop thinking about a guy I had met briefly during my first week of college. He was a commuter too, and we’d both arrived a little early for a talk given by the journalist Alfred Lubrano on first-generation college students.

First-generation – that described me, and it might have described this tall, sweating guy whose thigh briefly touched mine as we waited for the talk to begin. I looked at him, and he leaned over and asked me if I’d read Lubrano’s book, which had been assigned as summer reading to all freshmen. I said yes. When I turned away without continuing the conversation, he made a fierce backhanded gesture, as though I had offended him. He stood up too quickly, knocking his folding chair out of the row. I remember how his short bangs stuck to his forehead and how out of place he seemed, like he was calling bullshit on this whole college thing. He was obviously nervous and lonely, but his preemptive “fuck you” killed my pity. I was secretly afraid that The Foxington Center was bullshit, too, but I didn’t want to be that guy, who looked like he smelled bad even though he didn’t, who was rejecting himself before others had a chance to.

 

Aside from an unsuccessful fundraising effort at the King of Prussia mall, where we walked around all the glossiest high-end stores asking for donations, I stopped showing up at meetings. When I didn’t appear at the Foxington Center’s annual “Pollyball” – Poverty Volleyball – tournament, Bibby called me into her office, where she was planted at her desk behind an array of fun notepaper pads and extra mini-journals. I couldn’t tell whether she was embarrassed to have to fire me from the trip or not bothered in the slightest. She offered me a bowl of beautiful hard candy, like jewelry, and I selected a strawberry-filled lozenge but didn’t try to defend myself. I had dreaded the wearing of shorts and the mental image accompanying the word “spike.” As far as I could see, volleyball had nothing to do with fighting poverty. And yet an entire region of West Virginia was economically unprepared, and I didn’t want to spend a couple hours playing a game?

“Understanding our work here takes time,” Bibby said. “The preliminary meetings are carefully planned. They’re important, and we just haven’t seen enough of you.”

She was prepping me for expulsion, only to hand out a verdict of staggering indulgence: “If you skip the rest of the meetings, that’s okay. But please do some soul-searching to decide if Project Appalachia is really for you.” She seemed worried about me. I promised her I would soul-search. The trip was only weeks away, and I was sure I would be fine once I had a hammer in hand. Working side-by-side with others was how I grew close to people, and if nothing else, we’d repair a house. We’d make it snug, insulated, and suitable for a family. I’d always be able to pass these students on campus and share a smile and a little half-wave, knowing we had that.

“I just want to fix some houses,” I said.

I attended the Farewell Mass to prove my commitment, even swallowing Communion though I was a lapsed Catholic. I also signed up to contribute a vegetarian dish big enough for two meals, which my dad interpreted as a casserole containing ground turkey instead of ground beef. On the morning of departure, it took two people to transport the casserole, resting on a piece of plywood my dad had provided, from my trunk to one of the two school vans.

Bibby was kind to me as we loaded our belongings into the vans, helping me wedge my backpack in with all the over-packed duffels. I was the only one who had actually believed the suggested packing list: one pair of pants for work, one pair for leisure, “you won’t need hair appliances.” Those of us who were not drivers quickly fell asleep with our heads tucked against balled-up jackets, and when we woke up, we were halfway to West Virginia.

I was riding between Ashley, my assigned bunkmate, and Marissa, a swaggering, husky-voiced sophomore who dressed in cargo shorts that brushed her ankle bones. (I got quietly angry on her behalf, in case her conservative Christian background prevented her from coming out.) In the “way-back,” a youth minister named Drake was pillowed on his shy girlfriend, Sarah. They had told everyone they planned to stay virgins until they got married, and I wondered how they could have this conviction and yet seem relatively normal, actually the most likeable members of the group. To my embarrassment, I didn’t know most of the others’ names, even after all the icebreaker games we had played.

Our destination was Montgomery, a former coal shipping center on a curve of the Kanawha River. I kept stretching above the others’ heads to see what world we were entering. We saw signs of strip-mining and signs of spring. Water fell down rocks in slithery pours. When we crossed an old-fashioned span bridge over the river, Montgomery sagged in front of us like the clotheslines that were suddenly in every backyard we passed. Whole buildings were deserted, and only the frat houses belonging to the state college looked lively, students packed together on porches gearing up for Friday night, their bright hoodies standing out from the faded bricks of their surroundings. In spite of their presence, the area felt abandoned.

In my own hometown, there was a sticky, settled feeling; you could leave if you wanted to, but you remained out of comfort, maybe laziness. In the suburb where our college was located, there was a sense of firm self-placement, like you were performing a yoga pose in expensive Lycra pants. But in Montgomery, with the exception of the students, you were there because you had to be. If you had a way out, you had probably already left.

The church hosting us for the week was an echoing, four-story, mostly-empty building with everything needed to support a vibrant community of ghosts, including a darkened thrift shop and a daycare. In preparation for dinner, we set up some long folding tables in an L in the multi-purpose room. I saw I had made a terrible miscalculation as soon as the tinfoil was lifted from my non-vegetarian casserole. It smelled good, too good.

Bibby organized a group excursion to the nearest Kroger, where she threw boxes of Kraft mac and cheese into a cart, overhand. I remember trying to get her to talk to me by making fun of the pale, squishy West Virginia bagels mounded in a display. “No one in Philly would know what these things are!” But she added bagels to the cart, she slammed in Minute Rice, she directed her breathy comments to the others.

Back at the church rec hall, she swallowed neon pasta with the resolute expression of someone who is silently repeating the phrase, “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” but is actually never going to forget what happened between you.

 

In the morning, we drove to our assigned building site with the project director, Todd. The house we were fixing was built into a hill that had been flattened out in one spot for a yard and washed away by a trickle of ever flowing water in another section. The hill rose for for many feet above the house to form a pine-studded trash dump, where two Australian cattle dogs were tied. The property belonged to a married couple and their daughters, Leann and Sidney, ages twelve and fourteen. The man was out of work on a back injury, and the woman, Edna, mainly babysat for neighbors. Inside the house, walls were disintegrating, insulation hung out of the ceiling in dirty clumps, and the whole family lived in two bedrooms. One of the rooms, already emptied of furniture so we could get started, was cratered with fist-marks.

“I punched all them holes,” Leann said, as I was mixing the spackle to repair them. “I have anger problems.”

“Oh yeah?” I suggested that once the walls were fixed, she should take her anger out on something else. She agreed, grinning like I was teasing. The whole family was on their best behavior, though they had not thought to remove the poster board sign taped to their kitchen door: “If you come to make trouble, Go Away. We don’t want your drama here. In other words, Get Along, Leave, and TAKE IT TO THE BOTTOM OF THE HILL.” We saw it each time we entered the house with another sheet of drywall or bucket of paint.

Around noon, Edna began dropping hot dogs into pots of water boiling on the kitchen stove, which was sludgy with dark grease. I wondered how many hotdogs a family of four could possibly eat, and then it became clear that this was lunch for us. Two bags of buns were already ripped open on the counter. No one had asked her to do it – she had just wanted to say thank you, and after a quick emergency meeting, the half of the group who were not vegetarians agreed to eat three or four hot dogs each to cover for those who could not stomach nitrate-laced pork product. Edna noticed, though, and she shook her head and said we were the craziest crackers she had ever met.

Later, she took our group picture with the camera on her new smart phone, which had a QWERTY keyboard that shot out with a flick of the thumb. We had learned that economically unprepared people will often make purchases that don’t appear practical or even possible, so nobody judged Edna for owning this small luxury. Her husband seemed ashamed that we were there at all. He busied himself around the yard, his head down. I only heard his voice once, when I asked him the names of his two dogs and he said, like he was delivering bad news, “Ringo. Cooter.”

Back at the church, Todd asked us to reflect on our experiences for the day. He was a soft-spoken, topaz-eyed man in his mid-fifties, and he put me on edge for no obvious reason. I kept expecting his calmness to snap – after all, we spilled boxes of screws and leaned up against freshly-painted walls and blocked each other on opposite sides of the doorway, each person too polite to just shoulder on through. But he never even sighed with frustration. He and his wife, Linda, ran the national chapter of Project Appalachia, selecting houses from the parish that were in need of repair. This family had been pushed to the front of the list because of the two girls. “When talking to Leann and Sidney, what did you learn?” Todd asked. “What false assumptions did you make that you later defeated?”

All I had noticed was that the girls spent their days riding a seatless bike down the packed-dirt driveway. They’d told me they dreaded school, were uncomfortable using computers, and considered most of their teachers to be bullies. But hovering above the post where the saddle would have been, they careened down the slope and let out ecstatic screams. Then they leaned into their calves and walked the bike back up the hill to do it again. When it was my turn in the circle, I said it was great that they were able to find fun even in a shitty situation. Todd seemed to accept this, but Bibby narrowed her eyes, her head heavy and unwilling to turn in my direction.

“I noticed that they have so much spirit and resilience,” someone else was quick to say. “They are beautiful girls.”

I was accepting, belatedly, that the Fox members were unlikely candidates to ever be my friends. I had put off processing this knowledge, not wanting to believe I was incompatible with an entire group of people. What I noticed was that they didn’t complain. They were willing to work hard and even suffer. They weren’t picky about where they slept (bunks with crunchy plastic-covered mats) or what they ate (except for those with dietary restrictions, and even they didn’t mind eating white rice and wilted salad and that radioactive mac and cheese). They weren’t discerning when it came to books and movies, they didn’t form harsh opinions. One member with a sullen face and lowered eyelashes had seemed like she might be a kindred spirit, but I found out she was not actually grumpy; she was just determined to make a difference in the world, and that was why she dressed in black and smiled sparingly. She loved Jesus and Hannah Montana and iceberg lettuce with ranch dressing just as much as everyone else.

When we held hands in a circle each morning and evening for ten minutes of silent prayer, I popped my eyes open and looked around hopefully for someone equally lacking in spirituality. But there was no one to exchange eye-rolls with—just a ring of downturned faces, lips moving steadily.

Sometimes when I tried to join their conversations, I felt like I was planting a heavy work boot in the middle of a butterfly garden. Some of the girls were packing the day’s lunches, talking about Ty Pennington’s “Extreme Home Makeover” show, and I chipped in that Ty could have constructed several modest houses with the amount spent on a single family’s home. But then it wouldn’t have been very entertaining, I admitted. You needed that “Wow!” factor. You needed Ty bouncing around with his megaphone, building up drama, selecting hot tubs and flat screen TVs for people whose lives were falling apart.

The girls glanced at each other. “I love Ty,” Lauren said firmly, laying the conversation to rest.

I began to spend my free time in the church’s childcare center, a tiny, unheated room filled with well-worn toys. I told myself I wasn’t hiding. I made a few calls home, and then I outfitted and re-outfitted a Mister Potato Head as I waited for the creak of footsteps in the upstairs kitchen to announce the start of dinner preparations or the arrival of the van to transport us to the worksite.

The big project for the week was to replace the ceilings in all the rooms where heavy rains had caused the drywall to rot away. Though a lot less ambitious than anything we had seen on TV, this required full concentration, labored silence, and the ability to hold a long-term squat. We balanced on piles of the family’s belongings, a couple of us crouching like gargoyles on chests of drawers and holding up the fresh drywall panels with our shoulders while others revved their screw guns and worked up the courage to actually add a screw. We wore painters’ masks to keep from breathing the pink insulation material, which rained down on us from ragged holes in the ceiling. I was grateful for my mask, which blocked out the cocktail of cooking and living that overpowered the house – a sweet, dirty smell, like the interior of an old microwave. Whenever I went out to the yard to get materials or tools from one of the vans, I pulled off the mask and breathed the fresh air tinged with wood smoke until the stink of the house was gone.

The family’s rooms were cluttered, but not with the stuff most of us were familiar with, like bottles of cologne turning to vinegar on a bureau or a decade’s worth of high heels crushed sideways on a shoe rack. They didn’t have spillovers of magazines and newspapers, like my mom complained about in our house. Their furnishings were basic and flimsy. They had a wall calendar and a dust-gummed “footsteps in the sand” plaque. When the final ceiling panel was in place and we climbed down from our perches, someone’s work boot tore open a trash bag of cheap plush toys, the fur sparse and translucent. Edna bent and gathered the animals into her lap, saying, “You done found my collection.” We pretended to admire the rainbow-colored teddy bears, dogs holding hearts, and other, harder-to-identify creatures, all saved from carnivals over the years. I tried to picture Edna younger, dating, flirty, the night filled with lights and soft rock. A little later, she walked around giving away the dusty bears to her favorite girls.

By the end of the week, we had fixed the ceiling in the living room only, patched the drywall in the girls’ room, and rolled some white paint onto the walls, but the house was still unstable. The floors were peeling, the steep stairway that led to the kitchen was tented with tarps, and the wood carport was dark and dank from flood waters. When we told Edna and her husband that we had to go back to school, that this was all we’d managed to get done, she said the place was looking much better already.

On the evening before our departure, we brought the family back to the church with us to have some pizza and watch a slideshow about the week. The family sat close together in the echoing multi-purpose room, quiet as they were served. After we had recited the mandatory grace, Sidney and Leeann focused on their paper plates, suddenly shy. They had clean but unstyled stringy hair, glasses that had been fixed with tape, and ill-fitting boys’ clothes. Now that we were all stripped of our painter’s garb and face masks, maybe they noticed that some of the young women had salon highlights and whitened teeth that sunk perfectly into their pizza slices. I was sitting near them, and I searched for something to say, anything. The go-to topics all week had been the dogs, the hill, the seatless bike, and it seemed like we had explored every aspect of those topics: the age of the dogs, how muddy the hill got when it rained, how the bike had come to lose its saddle.

Afterwards, we herded the family into the chapel, an offshoot of the main church—Todd explained that the congregation was now so small, somewhere around 12, there was no point in heating the larger space—and seated them in the front pew before a drop-down screen. I wondered when Todd had found the time to compile our photos in PowerPoint ‘97, add dated-looking effects, and choose a soundtrack of Christian rock. Everyone was cheering his thoughtful efforts, then cheering each picture as it appeared: Drake, acting like the class clown while Sarah watched with shy pride. Bibby, with a swish, wearing her Bob the Builder t-shirt and smiling against the too-bright sun.

Next, a group of girls laughed at the flecks of paint on each other’s faces, their arms around each other. These girls were luminous. They had pink hammers and matching French-braided pigtails. They sang together in the showers, and they always insisted on washing all the dinner dishes themselves, the three of them hip-to-hip filling the industrial sink with bubbles.

Next in the slideshow was me, looking hassled. My mouth drifted open and my hair fell out of my attempt at a non-French braid. I was palming a cookie, just trying to finish my lunch in peace. Nothing about me was right. As Todd clicked through the remainder of the slideshow, I saw several more images of me looking tired and overwhelmed by paint fumes. I was frustrated with myself for not doing more to appear like I was bonding with a bunch of nice people, doing a nice thing. When the other girls posed in pyramid formation, wearing hard-hats, why hadn’t I gotten on my hands and knees? Why hadn’t I put my arm around Bibby’s shoulders and smiled?

When the family had been hugged, arranged in the van, and returned to the house, it was barely dark out, with ample time to shop for the first annual midnight gift exchange. Bibby had proposed this idea in a shy, almost babyish voice. She shook a plastic cup full of folded strips of paper with our names written on them, and I chose Ashley, the girl who had slept on the bunk above mine but had somehow managed to remain a stranger. Sure, I knew that Ashley majored in Criminology, worked at CVS, and went to bed early, but I didn’t know her. Hiking up the darkening commercial strip, I panicked. The Dollar Land didn’t offer much except cheap hair clips and foul candles – nothing that screamed Ashley. Finally, in a general store carrying everything from bodice-ripper romances to 25-pound slabs of lard, I found a white cross-ribbon bulletin board that didn’t require thumbtacks. Items could be slipped under the pretty intersecting ribbons. It was basically a blank backdrop, inoffensive and functional. She could display her Spring Break pictures on it.

The woman who rang me up paused to read my Project Appalachia t-shirt and said, “Thank you for being here.” I was embarrassed, but she looked so sensible and friendly that I remembered what it was like to talk to people who you had not tried and failed to understand, who had not tried and failed to understand you. I told her it was no problem.

At midnight, people were still scurrying around, hiding things under their shirts or blocking others from coming into the bunk area. But slowly they moved into the rec room, calling back over their shoulders and taking forever. Drake led off the evening by presenting several packets of cucumber seeds to Elizabeth. I realized then that the gifts were all going to be symbolic. Drake gave a little speech about how he’d observed Elizabeth’s love of cucumbers when we’d made salad for dinner the night before, and he said he hoped the plants would flourish in Elizabeth’s garden just as she had grown and blossomed at The Foxington Center.

When Elizabeth’s friends crowded around to share little stories about her distinctive laugh and prowess with a spackle knife, I realized the only thing I knew about her was that she was allergic to wheat. Our single conversation had been her revealing this and me saying, “Wow, that’s awful.”

It was then Elizabeth’s turn to present Marissa with a pair of yellowed, vintage baby shoes she had found in the church thrift store. “These shoes represent the brave first steps you have taken in knowing yourself,” she said. Marissa brushed her eyes, shifting from foot to foot as they hugged.

Finally, Lauren stood up and handed over a figure she had crafted out of clay, urging me to be careful as I held it. She recited a poem she had written about me being molded into the person I wanted to be, and she seemed to really mean it. There was clay under her fingernails. I gave her a short hug and nodded my thanks for the comments others made about how I was “so quiet” and a good worker.

When the talk cooled, I reached behind my back. “I have Ashley.”

Ashley smiled shyly. I dropped the fabric-covered board into her lap and sat back down, wishing it wasn’t so flat. “It could go above your desk,” I said. “For pictures, or whatever you want.”

“Nice!” she said, holding it. I had clearly deprived her of the chance to be moved. There hadn’t been official rules to this exchange, but everyone was supposed to have known that the point was to assign meaning to randomness, to make sense of the experience we had shared, to commemorate that we had come together with our matching t-shirts and hopeful pigtails to make a difference in the world. This was the unspoken idea I had failed to grasp: that the trip was not just about our mission to fix a house, it was about finding a place in the world for people who went on missions to fix houses.

 

I didn’t volunteer for anything else during college, so my path didn’t cross much with these students’ over the next three years. Whenever I told anyone else about them, about their prayers and their poster paint, their love of Jolly Ranchers and their faith in humanity, the listener almost always sniggered, validating my feelings.

“I could have warned you about The Foxington Center,” my friend Mary said, and together we made fun of their annual Hunger Picnic, where no food was served but “big helpings of awareness” were shared all around.

I was reminded that people like me usually outnumber people like them.

My vision, I suspected, was clearer than theirs. I could see why a young girl might want to punch holes through the walls of her own bedroom, might even want to keep on punching the newly-restored surfaces until daylight poured in again. I could look at the midnight gift exchange the way Edna might have viewed it, with a raised eyebrow and an exclamation of, “Crazy crackers!” I could call bullshit on the whole thing. But they had been able to turn this week, which I saw as a failure, into something special, something worth celebrating. If they were relentlessly positive, slapping paint over warped boards, it was because they had to be, in order to keep getting up and doing this work, imperfectly but to the best of their abilities, for the rest of their lives.

Even Bibby, on that final evening together, allowed herself only a few seconds to dislike me before her expression emptied and her gaze readjusted. I almost wished she would be angrier for longer, but efficiency won out, and she was already clearing her work surface to start a new project. She couldn’t help me with whatever it was I was looking for, but there was a glossy bag on her knee erupting with colorful tissue, a well-intentioned gift tucked inside. She couldn’t wait to give it away.

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1 Comment

  • yolanda says:

    I had a similar not-belonging experience in a buddhist meditation course. To be fair I wasn’t that into buddhism, and was there to just experience meditation. But, Zen Talks really bored me to death. I couldn’t connect at all. I wasn’t sure those things were worthy of discussing. And, everyone else seemed in-tuned. I still meditate daily though, but NO, NO talking. Some things lose all their meaning when talked.

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