A Letter from Carbon Country
An inflated Uncle Sam smiles on top of a rocket with the words: “God Bless America.” Someone has left a worn-out flag to guard the “For Sale” poster on the door to a boarded and abandoned house. It might rain. The street is empty.
It is a great view from the porch. From there, you can sit down with a book in one hand, and a cold lemonade in the other, overlooking the strip-mining process in the valley. The steep streets make the distance between the town and mine site a mile away look like a stone’s throw. When they blast, you feel it; the ground shakes, and sometimes you along with it.
Inside Vivian’s nameless store, the blast sometime makes the collection of old commercial signs and artifacts fall off the shelves.
“There’s no notifying before they blast, or anything like that,” says the old lady behind the counter. “You just feel it.”
Vivian’s convenience store is located near Coaldale’s cinema, “Angela,” where they screen “Cars,” “Despicable Me,” and “Spiderman.” Now, times are slow, she explains; perhaps she’d do better if people could pay with credit cards.
“I opened this store with my husband back in 1979, but after 56 years of marriage he died in 2011, and I was left alone to take care of things. I’ve also lost two sons since then. It’s rough, but feeling sorry for myself won’t change anything.”
All in all, Vivian has got a big family: she and her husband had six children, and many grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and even one great-great-grandchild. Three dogs run through the store.
“We take’em out for a walk,” says a woman following them with a cigarette in her mouth.
“Go ahead,” says Vivian. “That was one of my daughters. She likes dogs.”
In the borderland between the store and Vivian’s private home stands a giant birdcage. In it lives Maxie, or Max, a macau she adopted in 2012.
“I don’t know how old she is. But no less than twenty or twenty-five, I’d believe.”
Business became worse when she removed the lottery from the store, it wasn’t until afterwards that she understood that many customers came in specifically for the hope for a lucky strike. But she still sells candy for two cents.
“Kids always want candy,” says Vivian. “That’s what I wanted as a kid growing up not far away from here, and that’s what kids of today want as well.”
If you drive through Coaldale you meet a sign along the road, that says: “Everybody’s Goal is Mine More Coal.” The parallel street is filled with seemingly abandoned houses, tattooed with signs about private property and that you shouldn’t trespass.
In today’s main story in the local Times News, Coaldale’s chief demands more police officers in the wake of the biggest drug bust in the town’s history. The American press talks about a “heroin epidemic” that sweeps throughout the United States. It seems as if Coaldale is another victim; the arrested suspect in the drug bust possessed not only marijuana and meth, but also heroin.
As things are today, the chief writes in a report, it is not possible to “continue a proactive approach to crimes in our borough.” The borough treasurer, on the other hand, can’t promise there is enough budget funds to hire another police officer. Not too long ago, in neighboring Jim Thorpe, did the police board up a tavern after it was unveiled that the establishment was used as a drug hotspot.
Coaldale’s streets are empty. A slight overcast. It might rain. One patrolling police officer finishes his coffee at Tommy’s Italian diner. He wears a bulletproof vest, a handgun and fires a wry smile.
“How’re you today?” the officer says on his way out.
He passes in front of the small TV screen on the other side of the counter; a matinee movie is wrapping up its plot. On the floor near the door you find books to trade or buy for a dollar. One is “Whattaya Mean I Can’t Kill ‘Em?” by Rad Miller Jr. It is a true story about a Navy Seal in Vietnam, that someone paid $4.88 for at Wal-Mart. In the book presentation, it says that Miller Jr. today is a flea market vendor who restores old cars and trucks.
The book’s first sentence reads: “I was headed straight to hell in a handbasket.”
Sharon lives just next-door and has had a cup of coffee and a sandwich. She works as a nurse and is heading back home after another work shift.
“I didn’t realize how many things that were actually attached to the coal industry until I moved here,” she says. “The coal vein actually runs right under our feet, our houses and our lives here. All the way to Harrisburg. It’s a giant coal reserve, and it’s like we’re all living on top of a bunch of coal mines.”
Sharon has lived in Coaldale over thirty years. The mine offers jobs, and well-paid ones, but nowadays the machines can do most of the work. Not too many of them end up being given to locals. She doesn’t know if she will still live here in two or ten years.
“I’m not getting any younger,” Sharon says and shrugs. “We Americans don’t take care of ourselves. We are a sick-people.”
Not too long ago she had pneumonia and went to see a doctor. Her insurance didn’t cover it, and she was asked to leave.
“It shouldn’t matter where you get sick,” she says. “If it’s in Coaldale or in Timbuktu, it shouldn’t matter – all should be treated the same way when they’re sick. But that’s not how things are over here. It’s such a shame.”
It is fifty years since riots gutted the cities of Detroit and Newark. In Newark, New Jersey, it all started with a rumor that a man had died in police custody, paving the way for five consecutive nights of social unrest in July 1967. Arson, looting and gunfire left more than twenty people dead and saw thousands of arrests. The National Guard patrolled empty streets.
USA Today runs a story that asks the question what happened – and what has changed since then. President Donald Trump is using the same vocabulary as Nixon to describe urban America as a “living hell.” Residents, quoted in USA Today, say that the “bomb” that went off in 1967 was “a case of people reacting to brutality and discrimination.”
In this corner of the world, in the Pocono’s mining valleys, in what some people call “forgotten Pennsylvania,” boarded houses and lots overrun by the wild speak of a different form of social unrest. Watching, waiting. Warning.
The streets are empty. Clouds are moving fast. It might rain.
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Klas Lundström is the author of several books on American energy policy, Inferno (2015) and The Uranium Mine on the Prairie (2016).