“It’s easy to hate what’s different. We do it everyday, almost instinctively. To protect ourselves. It’s easy to sit within those walls, give in to inherent biases.”
“That’s what we’re fighting. Difference must be loved.”
From a conversation with Redrik back in Myrtle Beach.
Drive through smaller roads in SC, to Allendale. Quiet, sunny roads. Rubber bits here and there on the tar.
It’s early afternoon when we get there. Our first stop is in front of a Chinese restaurant – likely the only such thing miles around. The lady politely declines to be interviewed.
Nearby, an antiques and collectables shop, antique enough that it itself looks abandoned. Aside the Classic Coca Cola machines and billboards, an assemblage of splintering gas station signs. Relics. I snap some pictures.
As we later learn, Allendale’s current economic turmoil and unemployment rate – which make it one of the ten poorest counties in the US – have been the result more of (infra)structural causes than the recent recession. Till the 90’s, till when the I-95 was built to be exact, Allendale had been one of the fated ‘towns of passage’ for traffic going southwards to Florida, as well as northbound, a city living to the bustling seasonal cycles of wayfarers stopping by for a day or more, enjoying dinner and a good night’s rest.
Drive into the middle school after some jittering around and (walk) through the red doors.
A joyous rumble spurs from a large room. Thirty or forty kids look up as we walk in during their lunch.
Someone stands to greet us. It’s Joey, who invited us here. He’s amped up – talks in spurts of enthusiasm, walks with determined intent, always keeping a keen eye out for Others.
We meet other volunteers, all church members, adults, college students, all the way down to high school volunteers. A dozen names in a minute, we sit with Joey and Dan, a younger guy, and eat a salad as they fill us in on some of Allendale’s background and the work they’re doing.
Neither of them is from here originally, they both came to Allendale so that, in their way, they could help. All of the volunteers gathered here, as well as the money sponsored for the soccer camp and items (kids get fed, and upon completion receive some honorabilia) have been communed through church.
As Joey cautions me, it’s important to them that the message that comes across is not one of despair and stricken poverty, but one of hope: it is important to avoid the all-too-easy one-sided account oft purported by resource-pressed journalists.
Yes, the situation is such that Allendale is currently amongst the 10 poorest counties in the US.
But this does not mean that there isn’t a community, and large at that, of dedicated people working towards its future. Towards its phoenix.
“We’re working on a long-term plan. Thirty years, or more,” says Joey.
I was expecting some sort of deep commitment, but am surprised at how long that is. Where there’s Commitment and Dedication, there’s Hope around the corner.
“So you’re focusing on education? “I’m a strong believer in education. In the open sense.””
“We don’t believe any approach can work unless it is multi-faceted,” says Dan.
“If we address only one issue or side of things, then we are only working on symptoms. We’re trying to get to the root causes.”
They do all kinds of things, including meeting with city councils to promote local business, organizing local events, fundraising for the community, school programs…
“It’s a long-term plan.”
The soccer camp resumes, so do workshops. Joey gives us the tour, describes the program, introduces us to his wife, Joanna, other colleagues, and to the kids. He kindly offers that we spend the night at his place – we accept, the road has been tiresome.
We decide to check out the town for ourselves during the time remaining.
There is not much on this end. Closed shops, shuttered houses. Drive by a group of wizened men loitering on what had once been a town square. They might be homeless, destitute certainly. Empty and crumpled beer cans strewn on the ground. It’s three in the afternoon. The sun hits dry and hard. All four are African American.
“People hang out at Hardee’s,” we later hear from someone. (A fast-food chain.)
A quick loop to the other side of the rail track, the one and only which splices the town in two. With 18 trainloads per day and no crossing restrictions, Allendale holds the gruesome record of train-related accidents nationwide. Not much of an incentive for revival.
Go to what seems like the only open place in town, a gas station and convenience store. Indian owner. Interview. Not very reassured as I pull out some electronics and transfer pictures, hidden in the low security of a side room, long gone unused, where red dining tables stand below the eviscerated ceiling.
One of the drunk fellows walks in, limp from drink. He picks a beer can out stumblingly, extracts a shriveled five-dollar bill and tends it to the owner. He recants upon hearing the price and goes to the fridges in order to pick another one.
The owner grunts and his eyes follow him. Poor fellow isn’t dishonest, or seeking any trouble – he’s inebriated and miserable. The owner has to walk him through, and out, with a firm voice. His understanding isn’t reason enough to forget the frustration he feels at having to deal with these encounters, daily (he may understand the symptoms but abhor the root causes).
Head back to the middle school where the volunteers are wrapping up the day’s work with the kids. The children have quieted down by now. It’s been a full day, ever since 8 or 9am. They all seem happy to have been able to spend it that way. They’ll be back tomorrow.
More interviews with the team of volunteers: all Christian and gathered through church, a small crowd of onlookers assembles. Many of the answers revolve around the notion of helping the Other, serving one’s community. It also seems like there’s a certain amount of caution in some of them about delving too deep into their faith, heightened by the camera – after all, who are these two dudes?
(As Joey later tweets: “Two random guys doing laundry at our house.”)
Funnier, after the series of interviews, as I shut off the camera, one of the women standing by hurls a raucous and good-natured “God rocks!”
We’re invited to have some famously good fried chicken at the nearby diner: green collards, macaroni, good southern food. We sit down with the younger folk and Joey, – interesting how in this case online interactions have led to some real life connections.
Among them Nate, a 15-year-old whose done already impressive video work, including a project in many ways similar to this one, using the concept of “50 people 1 question.” (apparently been around for a while but I hadn’t heard about it before!)
Are exhausted by the time dinner ends, drive back to Joey’s place, which is reasonably rented from a wealthier community member. They have a nice home, a lego town sprawled on one end of the rug, horse stables, houses being built…
Redrik and I get to share the daughter’s room – Joey and Joanna have three bright kids, a girl and two younger brothers. All three have already expressed diverse interests in these early stages of their lives, and the pink walls of the daughter’s room are covered in drawings and artwork.
We get to do our laundry, take a shower.
Early bird rise, work. The family is up early too, Joey has classes to teach this morning, Joanna and kids must prepare and attend the soccer camp.
Sign the guestbook and leave a sketch on the daughter’s desk.
Redrik and I will join them later, head to a slightly livelier gas station at the other edge of town. An open diner. Try to get some interviews. “Come back later.”
Get to the middle school. Coach, volunteers and kids are on the soccer field.
Performing some warm-up, drills, teamwork building exercises. The coach, Will, demonstrates a keen sense of pedagogy, both in drills and discipline. Isn’t phased by the occasional jokester who coughs or draws attention as Will gives instructions, but doesn’t hesitate to take another kid aside, who must have been roughhousing of some sort, and explain to him plainly not to, and especially why not to, do that.
Get a few pictures, stand aside as the drills continue, kids unexhausted as ever. One of the fathers on the sideline comes up and chats. He’s a dentist. Travelled to Kenya.
“You’d be surprised how happy they are over there. They don t even want to be like America, or Americans.”
He’s making an analogy, without making it. The analogy is not to compare the poverty or actual happiness of some in Allendale to the people of Kenya, but rather to be aware of the all-too-easy derogatory outlook of an outsider into a community poorer, or rather different, by the outsider’s standards.
Round of goodbyes. Shake hands. The kids resume their activities in the same flicker.
Waiting for Joey to come in from his class, thank him and say good-bye.
A heavy pick-up truck, F-250 or something, pulls up in the grass aside us.
“You the guys who’re in town shooting something? Joey said you’d wanna talk to me.”
The guy we’d wanna talk to is Jim B., we briefly met the previous day. He’s imposing. Square chin and a wide 6”2. Calls his son ‘fat chicken’, for no reason known to others.
Jim is also sharp enough to know just how to adjust his tone when on camera and when telling us something aside. He’s aware of the challenges currently faced by the community, aware also of the reasons for hope. Some of these reasons being currently exemplified in the spring break camp, and through people like Joey and the other volunteers.
Jim runs a hunting and sightseeing lodge near town; it’s alligator season. He’s also a concealed weapons instructor. For a second we wonder if he’s trying to sell us on one of his classes, telling us about how good a cross-section of people it would be to talk to. Would be interesting. – no, he says, these take a long time to plan, and they’re full, it’s hunting season right now, classes won’t take place till the end of alligator season.
His father raised him square, a disciplinarian:
“Kids weren’t supposed to talk to adults unless spoken to.”
“I go easier on my children.” Three things they should say to adults:
Yes sir, No sir, Thank you sir.
Jim broaches a recent evolution in the demographic of his shooting classes. In the past, much of the violence in Allendale county remained ‘black-on-black’, or to simplify, remained marginalized because it concerned the poorer members of the community. But recently things have changed, taken a so-called interracial twist, and since then the community got galvanized, experiences a renewed feeling of solidarity.
Jim argues that people are the problem, not guns, that driving and alcohol kill more people than firearms. He would like it if the biases – or truths – about firearms could be abated, shooting is a sport. “Those who shoot at people are called murderers.”
He tells us about Florida and cautions us to keep an eye out, especially with the current debate raging about Traylon Martin: more rural conservative north, becomes more liberal towards south.
But before heading into Florida, we’re about to experience another series of colorful and contrasted encounters. Stay tuned for next chapter, The Un-Gated Community, including: Roll on with the Rollers, and meeting with the Old Man and the Sea.