My new essay on social class, drinking culture, and (not) fitting in as an academic in a small Rust Belt city

"Our economic system depletes communities, and you can gain wealth and status within it if you’re willing to pull up your own roots again and again ... while others, more firmly planted, wither."

I have a new essay called “Drinking Alone” in the current issue of Commonweal magazine. It’s hard for me to say concisely what the piece is about, because it’s really about my entire 30s, and the economic devastation in cities like Wilkes-Barre, PA, where I lived during that time, and it’s about strange drinking customs, and it’s about how people form insider/outsider distinctions through those drinking customs and in response to economic devastation.

Basically, I lived in Wilkes-Barre for 11 years, a cosmopolitan outsider in a decidedly not-cosmopolitan area, and I never felt like I fit in, and all the while, I drank. By myself, with friends, with strangers. I sought community, but I never quite found it beyond my fellow-cosmopolitan coworkers at the college where I taught. And meanwhile, the working-class culture of the city was crumbling, and its residents were drinking themselves to death. I want to believe in the possibility of solidarity between people like me, who move all the time for work, and people who never dream of living beyond Wilkes-Barre. But I found that such solidarity is nearly impossible to put in practice. What would be the medium for it?

Here’s the opening scene of the essay:

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.

This essay was in the works for quite a long time. In one sense, I began it fifteen years ago, soon after I arrived in Wilkes-Barre and wrote an email to a friend that ended up becoming the beer-store scene. But I didn’t think of writing this as an essay until I was in a writing workshop led by Anne Helen Petersen in 2017, and she assigned us to write a scene based on our expertise. I said my expertise was drinking in bars in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. So I wrote a scene that ended up in the middle of the essay. The following year, I was in another workshop, this one led by Meghan O’Gieblyn, where I researched and drafted the whole thing. Then there was a long period of revision and figuring out where to try to publish it. Early this year, I realized it was a Commonweal essay all along. I’m grateful that the magazine agreed.

I have received a lot of positive feedback on the piece so far. What might be most gratifying is hearing from former students of mine and others who grew up in Wilkes-Barre saying the piece put to words things they had thought about the region where they grew up. Still, I fear it’s only a matter of time before I get some negative feedback. Meghan Daum tells writers, “No one will love you if someone doesn’t hate you.” What I think she means is, readers respond to writing in which something is at stake. And you know something is at stake when you can imagine someone emailing you an angry response. (Sometimes you don’t even have to imagine!) In writing this essay, I could easily picture the angry email-writer, someone from Wilkes-Barre who thinks I emphasized the negative too much, or who thinks I’m just some out-of-town jerk who never gave the place a chance, or who thinks I’m an elitist looking down on struggling people and therefore I’m the reason Trump won. (I managed to write 4,500 words on Wilkes-Barre without mentioning Trump at all! Surely this is a new record.)

I can also imagine people I used to work with being hurt by some of what I said. Some of the things I wrote were hard to write, both intellectually and emotionally. I think that’s because there is so much suffering in Wilkes-Barre, and some of it is self-inflicted, and there is no obvious way to heal it. Still, many people are doing their best to heal it. My former colleagues are among them. I am somewhat awed by the work they do, because it is hard, and it is often thankless. Ultimately, it was too hard for me, and I burned out and quit. They keep going.

The entire current issue of Commonweal is outstanding. There is a series of articles on George Floyd’s murder, the ensuing protests, and racial justice from a Catholic perspective. In addition, the three feature essays — Tara Isabella Burton’s “Bad Traditionalism,” Matthew Sitman’s “Muddling Through,” and mine — resonate with each other in remarkable ways. Matt’s is a book-review-turned-personal-essay on clinical depression, politics, and how we often need others — just their mere presence — to help us get out of bed some mornings. Burton’s is about her dalliance with traditionalist Catholicism, which coincided with an engagement she ultimately broke off, and how her friends became the community, the Body of Christ, that she needed to reorient her life.

Burton writes that she embraced traditionalism as a refuge of meaning, against what she termed “our sclerotic liberal modernity.” Matt connects depression to the precarious position our economy puts so many people in. And I see the economic devastation of places like Wilkes-Barre as creating a deep sickness of spirit, in which drinking alcohol according to longstanding working-class customs is a collective coping mechanism and a defense against the predatory world beyond the Wyoming Valley. It seems we’re all saying something is deeply wrong in our society, something that long predates the pandemic, but which surely has exacerbated the pandemic’s toll. Economic and political and romantic and professional and social and spiritual life are all braided together, such that you could claim that a problem in any one area is a consequence of the problem in any other. But in fact, they are all the same problem, and they all admit of the same solution: seeing the irreducible human dignity in each other. I failed at that when I lived in Wilkes-Barre, and maybe Wilkes-Barre failed, too. But I have hope, because the people around Matt and Tara managed to succeed.

I of course read these pieces separately online, but I cannot wait to see them all together in print. The connections among them remind me that a print magazine is more than the sum of its parts. You will read Burton’s essay differently after you’ve read Matt’s. Commonweal is running a subscription special right now, $9.95 for your first year. Please consider subscribing.

Book update

I submitted a full draft of my book on burnout to University of California Press at the end of May. It’s now in the hands of readers who will offer a critique that will guide my revisions. If all goes well, the book should be out sometime in the middle of next year. Over the past seven weeks I have barely thought about the book at all. Lots of other things have been going on in my life and, you know, in the world during that time. I have needed the break from thinking about burnout. (I also needed a month’s break from this newsletter.)

But now I’m itching for other stuff to write about. I have a long list of articles I’d like to do, and I probably ought to give at least some thought to pieces I can publish around the time the book comes out. I am also teaching a spiritual nonfiction class through Writing Workshops Dallas. So there’s plenty to do, yet I also find I’m still a bit worn out from all the work on the book, plus, you know, everything that’s happening in the world.

All of this is to say: Don’t expect much new published writing from me for a while. I will keep posting this newsletter, probably monthly. I’m grateful for your interest in my work. You help keep me going.