"Oh, you know, my social conscience. After I got out of Vassar I messed around in New York for a year, working for a magazine, which folded, and I guess I was supposed to get a job at another magazine and wait around to get married. I mean that's what Mom did, right? That or be a modern woman and go to professional school like you. But I didn't want to go to professional school, and I wasn't exactly sure I wanted to be a modern woman. The guys I was dating...I mean, they were all right, but you know..."
"Bland, or totally focused on the greasy pole, or...I dated a sculptor with a loft in SoHo for a while, but honestly, all those people...I couldn't take them seriously, the black clothes and that attitude and the constant backbiting about everyone's work. And so I applied to VISTA."
"After the sculptor broke your heart."
Rose laughed longer than necessary and drank some beer. "Yeah, you got me pegged. The Foreign Legion of the white girls. They sent me to Haw Hollow, West Virginia, to help run a craft cooperative. It mainly involved bookkeeping and writing grant applications and arranging child care so the women could quilt and weave. Well, you can imagine it was quite a shock. You don't think people live like that in America anymore. I mean white people."
"Is not the word. The whole county is kept alive by miners' pensions. They won't take any help from the government, you know. Extremely proud, living in these little hamlets up in the hills -- hollers is what they call them. The water's all rotten from the acid drainage. Half the county looks like moonscape from the strip and pit mines. They're supposed to rehab the land, but a lot of them don't -- the coal companies. And they won't just leave and go to the cities for work. They want to stay by their home places." Rose sighed. "And so there I was, a little middle-class girl doing her social obligation, and one night I drove down to McCullensburg -- that's the local metropolis, population twelve thousand, a Mickey D, three gas stations, and a Bi-Lo -- for a meeting of all the various do-good types, and after all the social workers had droned on for a while, this guy steps up to the mike, and he gives this incredible, incredible speech, all about the hard lives of the people, and how bad they'd been treated by the mine companies and the government, and how they deserved dignity. He said the mountain people were the best people in America, how they were the only ones still living the original vision of America. I mean, it was a stem-winder, and you could see he really believed it."
"It sounds like a Pete Seeger concert."
"Oh, right, I was the same way -- nobody's more cynical than an idealist trying to deal with twenty kids and a busted toilet. I guess you had to be there. We gave him a standing ovation. We were in the Methodist church hall and they had coffee afterward and I went up to him and told him how much I liked his speech, and he said something like, talk's cheap, and I said, no, he inspired me, and he gave me this look, I can't explain it, but no one had ever looked at me that way before. Penetrating, like he could peer into the bottom of my gas tank and see it was more or less empty. And he pointed to all the various social-work and church-lady and government types in the room and said, you think I inspired these people? Yeah, to applaud for a minute or two. And then they're going to go back to doing what they've always been doing, taking a middle-class paycheck for helping the poor and downtrodden. They're not going to change. They're not going to put their bodies on the line for something."
Rose paused and took a gulping swallow of beer. Marlene saw that she was flushed, but whether from the beer or the sun or the rush of memory, it was impossible to tell.
Copyright © 2002 by Robert K. Tanenbaum.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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