Last week Surry County’s neighbor to the west got 15 minutes of unwanted fame.
Wilkes County was the subject of a front-page story in The New York Times but it could just as easily have been Surry County. The news is not good, and the problems outlined in the story don’t miraculously cure themselves at the county line.
Richard Fausset’s story, “Feeling Let Down and Left Behind, with Little Hope for Better,” used Wilkes County to stand in for all the places in this part of the country that have seen their industrial jobs evaporate as companies chased cheaper labor overseas and the floundering that has resulted while no one has been able to figure out what comes next.
His story paints a clear picture of the hopelessness, helplessness and resulting despair that started when the factories began to close after NAFTA, was made worse by the Great Recession and refuses to go away even though we are constantly told things are getting better. And because Fausset pulled no punches, some folks in Wilkes are not happy.
They are not happy about a picture of their county that includes unembarrassed toothlessness, rusty trucks, a plethora of Confederate flags, check engine lights that remain lit due to lack of money for repairs and crappy trailers that rent for way more than they’re worth.
Problem is, there is nothing inaccurate about this picture of Wilkes. If anything, the county fathers should be happy it wasn’t worse. Fausset danced rather gingerly around the local meth and opioid epidemics which is about the only thing in the story that the local press ever mentions. Maybe it takes the fresh eyes of an outsider to see what everyone else takes for granted.
Pietros Maneos was so distressed about this unflattering portrayal of the county that he wrote a rebuttal in The Huffington Post, “Wilkes County: An Alternative Perspective.” Maneos insists Wilkes is a golden land of great natural beauty — he’s right about that — and that if the Times writer had ventured out a bit from the vape shop on Main Street in North Wilkesboro where he based his story, he would have found some great things in Wilkes County, like the high-end restaurant Sixth and Main and Raffaldini Vineyards in Ronda.
And yes, those are both very nice places, but that’s not the point here. The people in Fausset’s story have trouble paying their rent or keeping their vehicle operational. They’re unlikely to spend a hundred bucks on a fancy dinner or fritter away a weekend afternoon sipping Sangiovese and playing bocce in a faux-Tuscan villa. And just because those options are available doesn’t mean those options are viable for the vast majority of residents.
I was raised in Wilkes County and a lot of my family still lives there. When I moved back here after a few decades in NYC, I felt much like Pietros Maneos. I saw the beauty of the landscape and moved among a group of people who dined in fancy restaurants and hung out in vineyards. And yes, that is a lovely life. I also could not understand what the locals were whining about. When on the rare occasion, I took time to listen.
But then my business became a casualty of the Great Recession and I ended up working at the Tyson plant in Wilkesboro, and my four years there, I feel, qualifies me to speak with authority on the Great State of Wilkes.
At the time, Tyson was the only place for miles around that had jobs available. The fact that Tyson was hiring during the depths of the downturn speaks to the challenges of working there. People routinely quit there during a time when there were no other jobs available anywhere else. Those jobs were hard and tough and they were performed by people who were hard and tough. It wasn’t for everybody even when there were no other options.
During my time there, I met a lot of people and though they were certainly tough, they were a pretty beaten down bunch of folks. Not all, of course, but by and large, there were a lot of people who felt life had passed them by. And had no idea how to make things better. Or had any hope that there was a way to make things better.
Sure, some had made some bad decisions and were suffering the consequences. Others were just trying to navigate a world where the rules have changed. There was a time in the not so distant past when a Tyson job allowed a worker to build a respectable life, support a family, buy a home, reach for and have a good shot at the American dream. But those days are no more.
And if the folks who have been left behind feel hopelessness and despair, I don’t think that the problem will be solved by the powers that be and more fortunate folks in the county refusing to acknowledge that despair and hopelessness.
And to suggest that the problems of someone who has to borrow his sister’s ancient van with a door that won’t close because he doesn’t have $1,000 to repair his own car are somehow lessened because he lives in a county with a fancy restaurant, a fake Tuscan villa and a farm-to-table market, is insensitive at best and frankly, just plain clueless.
Such reasoning is not unlike Marie Antoinette suggesting that the hungry peasants who could not afford bread eat cake instead.
And we all know what happened to her.