I live in an unincorporated town called Itmann, West Virginia. Itmann used to be quite the little place, settled on the outskirts of the big (ha!) town of Mullens, crammed between a river and railroad tracks and a whole lot of mountainside. There used to be a school here, from what I’ve been told. But, now, Itmann is a few hills full of old houses–most of them coal camp houses redesigned over the decades to look like normal houses– and a couple of bears and maybe a few snakes and squirrels here and there. We don’t even have a gas station. But, we do have a post office, so we have that going for us, right?
I’ve lived in Itmann since I got married in 2001. Since then, several houses in Itmann have become empty, void of human life, and are now falling in or will be soon. And that’s not just in my little town, that’s my entire county and most of the surrounding counties, too. Southern West Virginia revolves around the big nasty business of coal and when the coal mines aren’t producing, they lay people off. When mass amounts of men and women are laid off, they either go completely broke here or move elsewhere. It’s a sad fact, but it’s a reality that all families here have to face every single day. But, ya know what? We face it together.
I wake up every morning and get my kids ready for school, just like everyone else in the United States. But, instead of a bus pulling to the curb to pick them up, they walk to the bottom of the hill to be picked up. We make this walk with my neighbor and her kids, so after the kids get on the bus, my neighbor and I walk back up the hill together and chat about whatever’s going on, which mostly consists of our kids and what’s on sale in the local stores. We wave and say “hey” to the other neighbors on the hill as we walk because it’s 8 AM and everybody is starting their day, too. We come to my house first and, at the bottom of my driveway, she and I say goodbye for the time being and go our separate ways. I go inside my house and quietly check my email because my husband, who works nights driving a coal truck to fill up the trains my neighbor’s husband conducts, is sleeping.
See what I did there? I just showed you an example of how everything around here revolves around coal–even for those who are not coal miners.
On a typical day, I do laundry, pay bills, watch tv, play with my cats, and call my mother. I write, I cook, and I sometimes grow plants in the dirt outside–and then eat the fruit that comes later. I listen to music–David Bowie right now–and I keep my phone close in case the kids or my husband need me when they’re not home. I’m just like everyone else, I guess, but there are a few things about living in West Virginia the rest of the world seems to always get wrong.
For one thing, not all West Virginians are hooked on prescription pills. Sure, there’s an epidemic, but I’m taking no part in that and I’ll have absolutely nothing to do with those who do. I’ve seen horrifying things happen to people who I love, thanks to the pill problem around here. It kills me to see someone I was once close to throw her (or his) life away over a few pills. Families here are being torn apart by drugs and it’s happening at an alarming rate, but there are a lot of drug free people here, too, so don’t get it twisted, dears.
Not all West Virginians are stupid. There are stupid people everywhere. But, there are a lot of really smart people here, too. Sometimes I wonder why everyone thinks people in West Virginia are a bunch of shoeless, uneducated hillbillies, but then I remember that it doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks as long as you’re happy. And, for the most part, I am. The truth is, however, that a lot of college educated people in this state come back home after earning their degrees and end up in the mines because there really isn’t much else here that will pay a living wage. Those who don’t want to work in the mines and aren’t willing to wait for a different kind of position to open up just leave the state. But, just looking around my neighborhood, I can honestly tell you that each one of my neighbors has a good head on their shoulders–and I know this because every family up here has been here for at least thirty years or more. We all know each other quite well. If I ever need help with something, chances are, I need only look up the hill a little ways or down the hill. There are a lot of writers, doctors, lawyers, poets, and excellent teachers in West Virginia. One need only look to find them.
Not all West Virginians are toothless, either. I’m sure some of us are. For example, I wear a partial. It’s not because I’m a hillbilly, either. It’s because I had five pregnancies back to back and, during my fourth pregnancy, I took seven (YES, seven) different pills and supplements just to keep all of my levels where they should have been, but it wasn’t enough to keep my son alive and it wasn’t enough to keep my teeth from leaving me. That particular pregnancy took every bit of the vitamins out of my body to keep my son alive and, in the end, I lost my son and, about a year or so later, a few teeth. However, we have some great dentists here. Most WV residents have beautiful smiles. Even me, with my partial.
Not all West Virginians love football. Some of us, like me, prefer quieter activities, such as writing, reading, and sewing. WVU seems to be the team of choice around here, though I really wouldn’t know because the only thing I get excited about on TV in the fall is Dr. Who’s new series on BBC. I have a lot of friends who love football, though, and that’s okay. They love my football hating, grouchy self anyway.
Not all West Virginians go crazy over pepperoni rolls. I don’t. I can’t eat them. They’re lying little bread rolls! You look at them and think there’s a pizza in there, but when you take a bite, it’s just pepperoni and bread…and mozzarella if you’re really, really lucky. Come on, people. Take me to Lucy Lou’s (pizza)and keep your pepperoni roll lying liar bread things to yourselves.
Not all West Virginians listen to country music. I DETEST country music. A minute ago, I was listening to David Bowie because I love him and his androgynous self. Right now I’m listening to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” being performed by Prince, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, and some other folks…all together…on one track. It’s totally blowing my mind, I love it that much. Sometimes I listen to Tori Amos. Sometimes I am more in the mood for Rammstein. I even listen to Tool. But, you will never, ever, ever catch me listening to country music unless it’s Johnny Cash. And let’s face it, Johnny Cash was just one of the first punks but sounded so country because he grew up playing it that way (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it).
I guess the moral of this blog post is that you can’t judge a person by where they live. I hate it when people do that. Not just to West Virginians, but people from anywhere. It’s ridiculous. And, now that I’ve gotten this off my chest, I’m going to go watch some Dr. Who play ball while I help my son with his homework.