Life above the Bridge: Some Observations, Part 2

I recently heard a tourist mumble at someone at her table about all the “white trash up here.” I later saw that the speaker’s vehiclel It had  an Indiana license plate.

According to Nancy Isenberg (LSU) in her 2016 book WHITE TRASH: THE 400-YEAR UNTOLD HISTORY OF CLASS IN AMERICA, the term “white trash” originated in the colonies as “waste people.”

Eisenberg contends that there is  lot of ignorance about class in the country and a lot of anger. She says this all tends to grow out of British attitudes about the poverty. She writes, “In many ways, our class system has hinged on the evolving political rationales used to dismiss or demonize (or occasionally reclaim) those white rural outcasts seemingly incapable of  becoming part of mainstream society.” She tell how the original ‘waste people’ (later ‘white trash) were marginalized Americans stigmatized by their inability to be productive, to own property, and/or to produce healthy and upwardly mobile children – the sense of uplift on which the American dream is predicated. America’s solution to poverty and social backwardness was not what we might expect. Well into the 20c, expulsion and even sterilization sounded rational to those wished to reduce the burden of “loser” people on the larger economy.”

The attitude that nails the poor as a burden, persists, and not a few people believe that the poor are in their state because they are lazy, or mentally lacking, or genetically inferior.  Back in the mid -19c, language attached to  attitudes about the poor gravitated  toward referring to poor rural whites as  somehow less than white, their yellowish skin cast and diseased and decrepit  children marking them as a strange breed apart.” Writes Eisenberg, “Throughout its history the U.S. has always had a class system. It is directed by the top one percent and supported by a contented middle class.” The lowest class is largely ignored, vilified and seen as stagnant, hopeless, and expendable, which is not thought of as part of the collective American national self-identity.

“The poor, the waste, the rubbish, as they are variously labelled have stood front and center during America’s  most formative political contests. During Colonial settlement, they were useful pawns as well as rebellious troublemakers, a pattern that persisted amid mass migrations of landless squatters westward across the continent.” Remember, [This note from me, not Eisenberg, the American Revolution was not bottom-up, but directed top-down.]

Eisenberg continues, “The southern poor whites figured prominently in the rise of Abraham Lincoln’s  Republican Party, and in the atmosphere of distrust that caused bad blood to percolate among the poorer classes with the Confederacy during the Civil War. White trash were dangerous  outliers in efforts to rebuild the union during Reconstruction; and in the first two decades of the 20c, when the eugenics movement flourished, they were the class of degenerates targeted for sterilization. On the flip side, poor whites were the beneficiaries of rehabilitative efforts during the New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society. “

Writes the historian, “At all times, white trash remind us of one of the American nation’s most uncomfortable truths: the poor are always with us. A preoccupation with penalizing poor whites reveals an uneasy tension between what Americans are taught to think about the country’s promise – the dream of upward mobility – and the less appealing truth that class borders almost invariably make that dream unobtainable. Of course , the intersection of race and class remains an undeniable part of the story.”

She continues, “…rationalizing economic inequality has been an unconscious  part of the national credo; poverty has been naturalized, often seen as something beyond human control. By that measure, poor whites had to be classified as a distinct breed. In other words, “breeding was not about the cultivation of special manners or skills, but something far more sinister, an imposed inheritance. The language that class that America embraced played off English attitudes toward vagrancy, and marked a transatlantic fixation with animal husbandry, demography and pedigree. The poor were not only described as waste, but inferior animal stocks.”

The result, Eisenberg contends,  is that,  “Over the years populist themes have emerged alongside more familiar derogatory  images, but never  with enough force to diminish the hostility projected on to impoverished  rural whites.”  She then points out an irony. “We have seen in recent decades the rise of tribal passions through the rediscovery of “redneck”  roots, a proud movement that coursed through the late 1980s and 1990s (My note, not the authors — and continues in certain places today.. Eisenberg points out,  “More than a reaction to progressive changes in race relations, this shift was spurred by a larger fascination with identity politics. Roots implied that the class took on traits (and allure)  of an ethnic heritage, which in turn reflected the modern desire to measure class as merely a cultural phenomenon. But as evidenced in the popularity of the “reality TV” shows DUCK DYNASTY, and HERE COMES HONEY BOO-BOO in recent years, white trash in the 21c remains fraught with the older baggage of stereotypes of the hopelessly ill bred. A host of well-known and lesser known figures contributed to the long sage of America’s embattled lowly breed. These include Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Davy Crockett, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jefferson Davis, Andrew Johnson, W.W.B Du Bois, Theodore Roosevelt, Erskine Caldwell, James Agee, Elvis Presley, Lyndon Baines Johnson, James Dickey, Billy Carter, Dolly Parton, William Jefferson Clinton, and Sarah Palin – to name  a few.”

The Book WHITE TRASH, the author says, “Tells many stories. One is the importance of America’s rural past. Another, and arguably the most important, is the one we as a people have trouble embracing, the pervasiveness of a class hierarchy in the U.S., (which) she contends, “begins and ends with the concepts of land and property ownership.  Class identity and the material and metaphoric meaning of land are closely connected. For much of American history, the worst classes were seen as an extension of the worst land: scrubby, barren, and swampy wasteland. House ownership remains to today the measure of social mobility.”

This may be changing among certain groups, I suspect, but Eisenberg’s point remains valid for the time being. Here we depart from Ms. Eisenberg and vault over into that scrubby,  swampy wasteland that is the Upper Peninsula, what the late Jim Harrison once quipped is “Wilderness by default.” There is, of course, agriculture up here, but unless you are in one of the southernmost UP, counties your growing season is shorter than the NHL playoffs, and compared to just about anywhere from the middle of the Lower Peninsula southward, it is mahk mahk meager. The population up here is aging visibly, and shrinking, and there are not  surplus of jobs of any kind beyond basic minimum wage. Now follows some observations and opinions of things seen and experienced up in these parts:

(1)  Up in our neck of the U.P. we buy fresh brown eggs, bird seed and suet, and plant seeds, at the auto parts store. [FYI: Eggs are available only when the chickens are “in the mood,” which thus far this spring and summer, they have decidedly not been.]

(2) If we need new hiking or work boots,  we shop for them at a pet store in Marquette or at the surprise – the local auto parts store– which carries Irish Setter and Muck Boots.

(3) 60-80 percent of the males up here sport facial hair and long hair. I can’t cite an estimate for women with facial hair; I can only opine that it is somewhere north of zero.

(4) There’s high probability that if you are 50 or younger up here, you will be copiously, densely, and visibly tatted.

(5) A huge proportion of men 70 and younger tend to eat meals with their ball caps on. Those under 30 wear them bills-backward and those 60 and more wear them at a farmerly tilt to the right, which might have political implications but no carefully controlled study has yet been done to look at this phenomenon.

(6) People travel to the U.P. to run their dirt bikes, motor-cyles, boats, ATVs, wave runners, snowmobiles and other toys and many come here under the impression that restrictions an laws which exist BTB don’t exist up here. They are somewhat peeved tolearn this isn’t so.

(7) Many people over 70 move about with canes or walkers and many over 80 carry portable oxygen. Some of the equipment is in questionable repair as you can hear the devices mechanically hissing and sighing.

(8) Like elsewhere in the country, fewer and fewer people over 50 here  smoke, but the young seem to embrace the habit as staunchly as younger generations have. Male and female. Interestingly those who do not smoke (especially those who’ve never smoked) see smoking as a public issue but they huff and puff at offenders as if it were a moral issue, equivalent to flashing your package in public.

(9)  People who move here from other parts of the state and world seem to be truly in love with the U.P, which is great, but it is also pretty standard for the more ambitious among new arrivals to be eager to teach locals “how to do it.” This sometimes aggravates folks, but mostly the locals just smile, knowing that the local way will prevail. There is a presumption of instructing the  bumpkinry in such efforts from new arrivals, and extension of the white trash thing Eisenberg talks about.

(10) Table manners, a class marker, show themselves here with a large percentage of shovelers. As many of these are tourists as locals.

(11) We do not have “food servers” in most of the restaurants. We have waiters and waitresses and they are not offended by the terms and we tip at 20 percent, which is far more than most pass-throughs do.

(12) Outside of Marquette, Escanaba, and perhaps a few others, most rural community hospitals here are small and live on the precipice of financial insolvency. Without the boosted Medicaid funds that came with the American Care Act (ACA/Obamacare) many of these facilities will close, leaving patients in this area with the choice of 45 minutes to Houghton or 80 minutes to Marquette – in summer. In winter the times vary with road conditions and weather. The situation ahead reminds me of words from Lewis Carroll’s, “The Jabberwocky.”


One, two! One, Two! And through and through

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead and with its head

He went galumphing back.

(13) Most restaurants where have salad bars – circa 1970s.  Friday fish fries are popular and there is huge competition, not just among restaurants but among organizations like odd fellows, eagles, American Legion, and VFWs.

(14) The winters are not as tough and the summers are different and people who’ve been here for 60-70 years say it’s not anything like the past, but the change is just cyclical and climate change is a hoax be environmentalists and foreign governments to put an economic strain on US-based businesses by forn competitors to make them less competitive. Ask the difference between climate and weather and the answer you most hear is: “There isn’t any difference.”

(15) A great number of people up here, of all ages, wear sneakers during winter and only don winter boots when the new snowfall gets “serious,” which is approximately a foot or so.

(16) Thirty below zero, Fahrenheit? You will not hear a word about it.  80 degrees F and muggy as a sauna? The world is ending, eh?

(17) Many here heat with oil but augment it with wood and wood pellet gizmos. Many here chop and split and stack and store their own wood during summer. They call this “making wood.”  Up here weather has to be a consideration  at all times.

(18) Snow scoops, not snow shovels here.

(19) Many Yoopers born and raised here seem to be genetically immune to troublesome insects. They rarely use bug  juice or even comment on the bugs.  They even take their babies to the beach when biting stable flies are out and the kids have them crawling on them and never whimper or cry. We have seen this numerous times. Meanwhile, I’m in shorts and I can last 10 minutes max. Wimp. Or perhaps culture and environment create a higher pain threshold in folks up here?

(20) Sign: SWIM AT YOUR OWN RISK is for tourists and visitors. Locals know we always live at our own risk,  that it’s on our shoulders, not some cosmic lifeguard’s or a government agency.

(21) When ambient temps climb over 45 degrees, the uniform-of-the day is flip-flops, T-shirts and shorts.

(22) Ask for bakery up here and you’ll be asked, “Holes or no holes?”

(23) The local vocabulary is a tad different than other parts of the state. Binoculars are far-lookers, toast is “hot bread,” and sitting next to each other is “side by each.”

(24)  Native Americans are Indians, not Native Americans. EG the local tribe is the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community. Indians often refer to themselves as “tribals.” Indian is not an insult.

(25) Guns are everywhere in these parts. I don’t know what percentage of people up here have concealed carry permits, but most people I know claim to have them and sometimes pack. Guns seen by local folk as tools with no inherent evil or good in them. They are seen as solutions to practical life problems, like acquiring food. Most people lock them up,  but many do not and we have been in many homes and camps with loaded weapons all over the place. Frequently-seen sign on shops: THESE PREMISES PROTECTED BY HIGH-SPEED WIRELESS DEVICE (GUN). (See No. 20.)

(26) Locals will stop vehicles side by  each in narrow two lane roads, and chitchat.  And if you’re in a hurry, well…just be patient. What’s your hurry?  This is the U.P. eh?

(27) We can’t garden safely until after the first full moon in June. In June 2016 we had two full moons and the plants couldn’t go in until almost July. Lousy results last fall. Our growing season is 80-110 days, but we are right on the edge of the 60-80-day line so our real season is closer to 80 than the higher number. Rocks grow great of their own volition. Not much else. I believe August may be the only month that has never seen snow.

(28) Daily coffee klatches in the local towns around us are either all men or all women, no mixing.  The relationship between male and female remind me of the first hour of high school sock hops in the late 50s and early 60s.

(29) DEET keeps bugs off most of us. When it fails, we mix a paste of Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer and water, and put it on bites until it is thick and dry like a scab. This will take away the itching immediately, but you will wake up with powder in your bed. Allow this poltice to dry.

(30) The pasty (PASS-Tee, not PAY-stee) came here with Cornish miners, not with the Finns. You never-ever use gravy. The real thing is made with lard. There are many claiming to make the best.  Come on up and decide for yourself.

(31) There is a local homemade sausage call cudaghy (KOO-da-ghee). Many people love this stuff. I am not one of that lot.

(32) Newspapers carry ads inviting the public to attend wedding receptions, birthday and anniversary parties at VFWs, and American Legion Halls.  It’s not necessary for you to know the celebrants.

(33) Pork pies are the real pies with crusts, not hats. The Catholic Church in L’Anse makes great ones and has fund-raising sales every few months. They are made with lard and minced pork and they are fatty and tasty and rich.

(34) This is a place where one sees strange out-of-context sights. We call it randomland. For example there is a parking lot at the intersection of US-28 and US-41. This lot is 12 miles from L’Anse and 15 miles from Michigammee. It is never full, yet there are two slots saved for handicapped parking. This is either the epitome of inclusion and putting yourself in the other guy’s shoes – or bureaucracy run amok. This lot is in  Ultima Thule (Nowhereland).

(35) You see six-foot-high fire hydrants and mail boxes. These are not jokes. This is snow country, folks. Think BIG SNOWPACK.

(36) The air up here is really, truly genuinely, categorically clean and pure.

(37) Many of the two tracks and gravel roads up here are superior to any paved roads BTB. This is a statement of fact, not an exaggeration.

(38) Sauna (SOW-na, not SAW-na) is a steam bath without which no hunting camp is complete.

(39) People around here have camps, not cottages.

(40) Baraga County is beset by loose dogs that chase vehicles in packs.

(41) There is weak to no cell phone coverage in many areas of the county. (If you have an emergency, see No. 20)

(42) If you have a roadside emergency, Yoopers will stop to offer help and not excpect payment in return. They do  hope you will  to pay it back, but won’t be surprised if you don’t.

(43) The local golf course parking lot is filled with pickup trucks and few automobiles.

(44) If you go into the clubhouse  you will see are wall ads for sandwiches and such, but the people on duty will swear it is not a restaurant.

(45) We pack down snow with our boots (pank).Then we walk on the panked surface. We only get out the snow blower when the snow is serious (over a foot is the minimum to qualify for serious).

(46) Many hunting camps from the EUP to the WUP mark hunting camp roads with bicycles on pedestals. Nobody can explain the history of this practice.

(47) You will see a lot of people waving vigorously  on the side of the road as you drive by. They are not waving at you. They are swatting insects. This is called the Yooper wave.

(48) There are no signs for LSD on Lake Superior beaches, but there should be. (LSD means Lake Superior Dick. Think about it.)

(49) There is a sign in front of an old copper mine shaft: YOU ARE FREE TO ENTER AND EXPLORE MINE SHAFTS. MOST WHO DO SO ARE EVENTUALLY RECOVERED. The parking lot is invariably full. (See No. 20.)

(50)  Many people up here love trees but do not hug them. They cut them down, use them to build things, or chop them up and burn them for heat in winter.

(51) Many here trap fur-bearing animals and have been trapping as long as their families have been here.

(52) First there were Ron Paul signs. These were replaced by Donald Trump signs. Next?

(53)There are more than a few Vietnam vets up here who have never worn a uniform and have never seen Vietnam. They couldn’t find Vietnam on a map if offered a fiver.

(54) Lots of “old hippies” up here. Drug use is high among many age groups and this includes opioids, weed, heroin, meth, coke, various pills, LSD, roofies, angel’s dust, and the full assortment of headed-for Dutch recreational drugs. There are drugs all over up here, all races, all ethnic backgrounds, all age groups, all socioeconomic categories.

(55) People still drive with road beers. Some habits are impossible to break.


(56) Tourists are identified by racks with expensive bikes, kayaks, Thule and Yakima carriers and driving foreign vehicles. Locals smile at these people and graciously accept their money.

(57) A surprising number of Yoopers are discerning foodies.  In our experience, many U.P. restaurants are far ahead of Kalamazoo establishments in gluten free choices.

(58) The teams of choice up here are Packers,  Tigers and Red Wings. Few pay attention to the Pistons. Nobody roots for the Lions.

(59) Couple of weeks ago I was in a restaurant and an old man asked the waitress if the cheese on his cheeseburger was American or foreign cheese,  because he didn’t  “want no foreign stuff.”

(60) By the way, I went to high school up here (Rudyard, Class of 1961) I never heard the term Yooper then.  After college I served for four years at K.I.Sawyer AFB (south of Marquette). Again, never heard the term Yooper. Not sure when it was born, where or why, it came into vogue.

(61) To those who’ve lived here most of their lives, Detroit & Surrounds are considered foreign and somewhat hostile territory.

(62) There is animus between White and Indian. Hard feelings and prejudices emanate from both camps. The comments may be made in half-joking tones, but make no mistake there is a problem here . The cause from the white side goes a bit like this: all our tax dollars go to supporting the Indians who insist they are a sovereign nation. If they’re sovereign why don’t they take care of themselves? The last figure I saw for  aggregated federal fiscal support of Native Americans was just under $20 billion. And if Indians are citizens of a different sovereign nation, how come they can vote in U.S. elections and serve in the U.S military? The Indians put casinos on their reservations where there were no casinos when treaties were signed, and how is that possible?  Indians are allowed by their rules, guaranteed by treaty to hunt and fish in certain ways and at certain times and THIS probably bugs people more than anything else, even those locals who don’t hunt and fish. Well, you get the picture.

(63) It is assumed that one can “find one’s way” in the woods, fish, hunt with rifle or bow, operate a boat, four-wheeler, motorcycle, snowmobile, cross-country ski, snowshoes. It’s also assumed you can fix things that are broken and run a log-splitter.

(64) Many (not all) Yoopers insist they hate their government but love their country – yet they will be first in line to make sure they get their share of government funds from various programs. Welfare seems to be a coded word for black. When it’s pointed out that far more  whites area on various forms of welfare and assistance one is usually given a derisive snort and two words, “white trash.” But white trash in the U.P. said by a Yooper doesn’t apply to white people up here. It applies to white trash elsewhere, as in Indiana or Tennessee.

(65) So-called Picnic Rock in Marquette is a place some people go to watch folks drown (See No. 20)

(66) As part-time residents of this hard-scrabble place we carry four-season weight clothes and gear in the vehicles at all times.

(67) Children here rarely wear helmets when riding bicycles or skateboards. (See No. 20)

(68) Summer is the time for motorcycles, which travel in costumed packs. They are driven largely by older-than-middle-age white men and women.

(69) Yoopers will tell you they like tourist money and they want it, but they don’t like tourists. They’re joking, sort of. Some businesses place out-of-order signs on their rest rooms so they don’t have to clean them. Since most summer tourists are older, this is not in the visitors’ interest.

(70) This year is the first one in 10 where we have seen a fair amount of young people. Prior to this, travelers were white- or silver-haired and over 60. They, of course, are the ones who have money from a time when people worked for organizations that paid pensions. Those times are gone.

(71) This is still a place where lots of locals have nicknames, some given by family, some given by neighbors and friends. The nicknames can stem from physical traits, occupations, behaviors and life events. One fella who ran a local sewage treatment plant for years is called “Ca Ca.”

(73) If you ask a Yooper for directions, you’ll get them, even if they have no idea where it is you’re trying to get to. Some folks do this as a practical joke, some because they can’t admit to not knowing. In some ways this behavior grows out of Nos. 20 and 64.

(74) Any mainstream (fake news) report about gun disasters is greeted here with whining, whinging and derision. Why don reporters report all the times guns save people and  help save lives?

(75) Liberalism is considered by many to be a mental disorder. A liberal is someone with no calluses, too much education, believes all the wrong things, and gives ribbons and medals to kids and people just for participation.

(76) If you flip through your AM or FM radio stations who will find a heap of religious programs, all of them looking for donations, 24-7.

(77) Mackinac Island is not in or part of the U.P. (See No. 60).

Let me close with an anecdote. A week or  ago  we were walking in the morning and came upon   three old gents, one fishing in Lake Superior, two nearby kibitzers. They all spoke  with heavy accents. I saw from a distance the fisherman drop a fish from a hand-net onto the ground. Nobody moved to give whack it with  a priest and give it a fast exit. It  was flopping. I looked at the fish, said to one of the on-lookers, “Sucker.”

He said, “Good fish.”

“Good to smoke,” I  told him.

“Bones, bones, bones,” he said , grinning.

He  could sense I was curious about his accent, declared with the back of his hand to his chest, “Iraqi. We like here. Fish.”

“How long in the U.S.?” I asked him.

“One year,” he said.

So it is this newcomer from a foreign land and I speak an international and very  ancient language: fish. The creature continues to lie on the grass flopping with decreasing energy, and presumably suffering. It seems so strange to think that the only thing that warrants a short quick response about the new country is fish.

There are some days I read the papers or hear the new and that’s just the smell I think I can detect in the air.

I love this place. Over. What follow are photos from last weekend’s 39th Annual Keweenaw
Bay Maawanjii’iding. Enjoy the color. Over.