Kentucky: A Small Portrait of America

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It was a city of strip malls and strip mining. The landscape, lazy rolling hills and flat stretches of corn, tobacco, soy beans. Identical brick houses with white columns and decorative shutters dotted the scene every mile or so. Closer to town the houses stood in stifling order,  lined up like an image in a fun house mirror– slightly varying productions of the same thing.

It is the overly ripe part of summer where growth starts to turn into fetid decay. Humidity wilts each day into the next. Life decomposes faster in such heat. The green explosion of summer is wilting into brown. Every afternoon the sky looks like it is about to break, and sometimes it will, in warm sporadic drops of rain. Even the Ohio River seems lackadaisical, currents slowly folding into each other, weighed down by silt and debris– the barges look silly paddling industry in such a lazy clime.

Once a week, like clockwork,  the earth shakes and rumbles. A Southern transplant would immediately think earthquake! A Kentuckian would think just another day at the mines. Funny that both should be feared, but strip mining had become a part of the landscape of the Bluegrass state, stripping folks of the mineral rights to their land– this and tobacco is their bread and butter, well, that and the factories.

The factory worker is still alive and dying in Kentucky. Temp agencies hire folks for factory positions with no benefits and the false hope they’ll get hired on fulltime. Resentments run deep when it comes to the shifts– 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. Migrant workers get hired for less and put into the better shift slots. A real breeding grounds for xenophobia; anger missing it’s mark. I worked with a lady, the sweetest mother of two, who with quick hands would roll spools to operate the blinds used in most homes across America. She would spit the word “spic” out with such hatred because she worked 3pm to 11:30pm winding spools while her husband worked midnight to 8:30am at a vegetable oil plant down the way. Her children were struggling in school, she felt impotent and overworked. And instead of anger at the corporation for their use of temp agencies in hiring, low wages, no benefits, and poor hours, she hates the Mexican.

There is a sense of unrest. You can feel it in the fabric of everyday life, pulling, pulling, pulling. You can hear the pennies scraping together. This is just a small portrait of America.

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