Hinterlands: Rural Detroits

“Now Open – Fireworks”

By Curtis Price

Posted July 15, 2021


On the evening of January 31st, 2016, I heard a loud thumping on the door. It was the kind of ominous knock that makes your heart skip a beat. I was flooded with a sense of dread that something bad  was getting ready to be set off. And sure enough, something bad was about to unfold.

I opened the door. There, standing outside were two mean-looking, redneck Alabama sheriffs with a tense look on their faces and hands on holsters. They brushed me aside and did a quick sweep through the apartment. Then, they told me I had to come with them. I asked, “Am I being arrested and if so, what for?” They didn’t answer. Instead they escorted me to the waiting cruiser. But I noticed they didn’t handcuff me.

Driving down University Drive, one of the main drags in Huntsville, the night was starting to fall and all I remembered were the street lights blurring together like stars that had fallen from the sky, illuminating a path. Bur a path to where? The sheriffs still refused to tell me where we were going. They engaged in the hard-bitten banter of lawless law enforcers and I was the invisible, powerless,  prisoner under their control.  I thought to myself this is what it must have felt like in 1937 Soviet Union, with the GPU rounding people up without warning.

To me surprise, however, they drove past the county jail – an ugly, squat building known on the street as “The Blue  Roof Inn” because of its distinctive blue roof tiling. Instead, they pulled into the Huntsville Hospital ER. The sheriffs bundled me out of the car and escorted me inside a locked area, a mini-Panopticon with a staff desk in the middle surveying everything that went on. Right away, I heard an older woman who looked like Phyllis Diller with a shock of blond hair hanging over her face like a rooster, yelling “Get your motherfucking hands off me!” and swinging wildly. Then it dawned on me. I was in the Psych Ward.

No, dear reader, I hadn’t suddenly decided to fly over the cuckoo’s nest. As I soon found out, an involuntary petition for civil commitment had been filed against me for being “suicidal and homicidal.’ A former BFF who I had cut off contact because he went on a crack run had filed the petition in a fit of vindictiveness, because being drug-addled and being able to manipulate the system aren’t two mutually exclusive propositions. I would remain involuntarily committed until I saw a judge for hearing two days later. The staff placed in a holding room painted sickly, institutional green with the only furniture a cast iron bed. That would be my impromptu “home” until a bed opened up on the inpatient psych unit.

A nurse came in to interview me. I let her have it, in controlled outrage. How can people be picked up against their will just on hearsay, I said? Isn’t this what Third World dictatorships do, where anonymous complaints lead to incarceration?  Where were my rights? She remained calm, explained what was happening and what I could expect. I sat down on the hard metal bed while the older woman continued screaming next door. But at least they left my door open which was a sign they didn’t see me as a security treat.

I was due to work that night at 11pm so I went out to the desk and asked if I could use the phone to call my job. A yellowed sign said “No personal calls allowed.” But in one of the many instances that happened to me over the next two days, she broke the rules and let me call work. It showed me how even in the most bureaucratized and regimented situations, ordinary people will ignore the system and reveal some humanity if they think these rules unfair. They don’t do it because they consciously want to buck the system. They do it unselfconsciously from a personal sense of what’s right.

It wasn’t until 1 am that I was admitted upstairs to the locked ward, to a plain room with just a bed, one wooden chair, and a small desk.

I slept soundly. I don’t remember if I dreamed.

At 7 am, staff woke everyone up and sent us to the day room for breakfast. The day room was a large lounge with a communal eating table, a big screen TV, a jumble of worn but comfortable mismatched chairs- and the only reading material a few old, torn-up “People” and “Entertainment Today” magazines. I looked around at my fellow inmates. One woman, a small white woman in her late 30s with waist length, dirty blond hair, lay stretched out over a chair like a wilted flower, hair dangling, staring vacantly into space, dealing with who knows what inner demons. The whole time she was on the unit she never talked to anyone and held her head down while eating, avoiding all eye contact.

I recognized Phyllis Diller from the night before. We talked. She said she was here because she changed her will, cutting a daughter out, and the daughter filed commitment papers as retaliation. I asked the nurse later how often that happened. She said quite a lot. One party in a messy divorce would file a petition to prevent the other from getting custody. Wills were yet another common reason, like with Phyllis Diller. Swearing out an involuntary petition gets used to settle lots of scores.

I thought, “Isn’t this so typical of how America works?” People living disheveled on grates and baying at the moon can’t get help while perfectly sane people are rounded up against their will, wasting scarce resources that others in real distress are denied.

Phyllis Diller went around with a perpetual Bernie Mac “WTF?” expression on her face, cursing like a small battalion of sailors while  demonstrating a natural comedic flair with pitch-perfect timing .But quite honestly, I found her draining to be around because she was too high-strung and talkative. She told me she used to work in the chemical plants and when news came out about birth defects in children born to line workers, she stormed into the supervisor’s office with her work shears in hand and told the supervisor, “If my baby is born with no balls, I’m coming after yours.”

At meals, we were only served decaf, on the theory that caffeine over-stimulates the nerves of the mentally distressed.  I told the monitors, two young, hip, muscular black guys, I needed real coffee. One went off the unit every meal and brought me fully-strength coffee from another floor. Again, that spontaneous willingness to break the official rules.

People came and went continually while I was there because most patients had signed themselves in voluntarily and thus could freely leave on their own volition. Later that first day, a middle-aged black woman was admitted. She shuffled in, shoulders slumped, deeply depressed. But as the hours went on, she became more outgoing, as if being around the warmth of others’ company caused her to open up, the way a seed sprouts under the sun’s rays. She told me her story. She had married a man, who whisked her off to the deep country, where he isolated her from her family, and continually beat her.  Finally, she escaped to the local ER, threatening to kill herself and she ended up transferred here.

We hung out talking while watching TV, which was always tuned to Steve Harvey and Dr. Phil. Many times she would talk back at the TV, giving advice, and her advice contained more wisdom and insight than anything coming out of those two clowns’ mouths. I wondered what she would do when she was released. Would she end up, like so many battered women, back in the same situation she had escaped ? I got a hold of some napkins and borrowed a pen from a staff member, wanting to write down my impressions. I guess to outsiders I looked like the right madman, furiously scribbling away on napkins. But by this time, I was resigned to being held against my will and was determined to record all my thoughts.

Later that evening, a nurse brought me a mobile phone from the nurses’ station, telling me I had a call. It was the security guard from the job who had demanded – and won-  the right to speak to me. Again, that breaking of the rules, because patients were only allowed to use the communal phone in the day room. The security guard said that when the rest of the night shift heard what happened to me, they set up a prayer circle overnight. She and one of the other workers wanted to come to my hearing and testify on my behalf.  The nurse listened next to me, with a warm, concerned expression, obviously moved by this show of solidarity. But I told the guard she didn’t have to come because the hearing didn’t allow witnesses. (The security guard, by the way, was a hard-core Trump supporter and Christian fundamentalist, but pro-abortion, pro-gay and with many close black friends. We met for breakfast several times afterward and still keep in-touch occasionally years after I left the job.)

On the second day, I had my psychiatric evaluation. An elderly West Indian psychiatrist, very serious and official, speaking in a thick lilting accent, administered the test. I could tell from his eyes, because he wore the blank expression of professionalism, that he could obviously see there was nothing clinically wrong with me but he had to go through the motions anyway. He said nothing though to reveal his thoughts and left. I talked briefly with a new admission, a young white guy, rail-thin and heavily tattooed, with sores on his face – a tell-tale sign of heavy meth use. He told me he had just gotten out of jail and I thought him admitting himself was maybe a ploy for an upcoming court case. But he spent most of this time on the communal phone afterward and we didn’t talk any more. The rest of the second day went like a blur.

On the morning of my hearing, after consulting with my appointed lawyer, the psychiatrist came in. He asked if he could pray. Not wanting to be difficult and potentially causing him to change his evaluation, I agreed. He intoned a prayer, with his mournful, long face, for about 20 minutes. Of course, it should have been illegal to mix religion and public services. But I guess in the psychiatrist’s own way he was a rule breaker too. It was a fitting, concluding absurdity on top of already accumulated absurdities.

The hearing was over in 15 minutes. Of course, they found no reason for my long-term commitment and the case was dismissed and expunged.

I walked out into the crisp, winter morning, closed my eyes and felt the sun hit my cheek, the first time I had breathed fresh air in two and a half days.  Now, I was free. But others weren’t. My fellow comrades in bad luck, misfortune and powerlessness were people taxed to their limits, isolated, unable to cope, and with no social support. Most would be discharged in three days  back into the same circumstances that sent them there. The system works, just as it was intended to.

Leaving the bleak, blue-collar Decatur, Alabama neighborhood known as Old Mouton, which aptly ends in a near vacant strip mall, I hit 67, the highway shunting traffic into 20, filled with the 24-7 rumble of trucks barreling toward Memphis. But by not turning on 67, I drive straight, ending instead little by little in a rural area. A few turns later, the grass grows higher and the distance between older, non-descript buildings widens. This is an area that hasn’t seen development in decades.

One of those turns leads to Old Trinity road, a narrow, worn-down, two- lane street that goes on for several miles before dead-ending in the town of Trinity. Driving along Old Trinity road, I cruise through sparsely populated, residential areas, mostly mobile homes and wooden houses that look like large shacks. The air is heavy with humidity and the smell of vegetation broiling in the mid-day sun. What is striking is the amount of decay. It seems every third house is abandoned, some buckled in.

 It reminds me of a rural Detroit. Some structures have been burnt, but most still stand, tottering like street corner drunks in knee-high weeds. Backwoods near the train tracks, lays two piles of rubble, obscured by trees and dancing shadows, the remains of older houses hastily dumped without proper burial. Were they torn down and dropped off from elsewhere? Abandoned, did they implode under their own weight in the backwoods where they formerly sat? Were they ripped apart by tornadoes? Each reason is equally plausible and the true reason obscured.

Trucks rumble through here too, from the factories at one end of Old Trinity near Woodruff.  Most factories off Woodruff are small, looking as if they might employ a few dozen to a hundred workers. Except for the Wayne’s Farm Poultry plant. Wayne’s Farm is large and a reason why, despite Alabama’s repressive anti-immigrant laws, so many Latinos have settled in Decatur. But the rest look like they’ve been there for ages. Again, no new development.

Yet a few dozen miles away, in Huntsville, lay shiny, one-story sprawling suburban industrial parks engineering advanced weapons systems with the latest technology. A gleaming new Mazda plant, rising like an industrial Phoenix out of former cornfields, is sprouting up midway between Huntsville and Decatur. Such on the local level is capitalism’s combined and uneven development. Some areas are raised and stroked while others knocked down and gutted.

Alabama, of course, is fully rooted in the globalized economy. In recent decades, the state  became a Southern site for the auto industry, with Japanese transplants scattered along the north-south central axis. Aerospace has gotten a toe-hold in the Mobile area too, with Airbus. AAA USA and VT Aerospace now embedded. Contrary to lazy stereotypes, Alabama’s union density is the highest in the Deep South, although none of the transplants and aerospace factories are. (1)

Yet as Allan Tullos notes in Alabama Getaway, “In its newly celebrated global presence, Alabama shows contradictory faces, represented through the glad-handing eagerly extended by development officials and in labor practices reminiscent of an earlier era. Effusive in offering infrastructure improvements, tax breaks, and promises of compliant labor, state officials hop from industrial recruiting trips abroad to meetings in Montgomery with representatives of governments to discuss trading relationships. Meanwhile, the Birmingham-based Drummond Company faces repeated charges of union busting, failure to protect labor leaders from murder, payments to paramilitary terrorists, and exploitation of workers in unsafe conditions at its vast, open-pit coalmining operation in near La Loma in Columbia, South America.”

Tullos wrote over a decade ago. Today, however, outside the major cities, other parts of the state – rural and depopulating – are being primed, like post-industrial versions of Third World slum scavengers, to dispose of refuse generated elsewhere.

The most notorious example of this, notorious only because it couldn’t be hidden, was the infamous “poop train.” In 2018, a train piled with millions of pounds of human excrement from New York, was forced to stop in Parrish, Alabama, after a neighboring town successfully won an injunction banning New York shit from being unloaded. Parrish, not having zoning regulations, instead hosted the “poop train” unwillingly until behind-the-scenes wrangling sent it on its journey elsewhere. The state’s attorney of Alabama described the landfill as “America’s biggest industrial pay toilet.” As a SLATE article noted, “According to the AP, it’s common for Northern states to ship their waste to rural areas in the South, and landfills on inexpensive land can make good money from the practice.”(2) How many other such landfills are sprinkled over Alabama is anyone’s guess; it’s an industry shrouded in secrecy and willed silence.

In Gadsden, a city of 40,000, in central Alabama and once the second economic powerhouse in the state after Mobile, the last remaining factory – Goodyear Rubber – which had been in the city since the 1930s – shut down, stripping the city of its major employer and tax base.  Soon afterwards, Pilgrim’s Pride, a major poultry processor, proposed Gadsden to site a rendering plant, turning foul-smelling discards from pulverized chicken flesh into pet food and other uses. Unusual for this part of the South, community opposition has been fierce, with the outcome still up in the air.

In Anniston, a majority-black city 20 minutes drive from Gadsden, rocket fuel and low-level radioactive waste from around the country gets sent for processing at what remains of the local Army base, where mustard gas and other chemical weapons captured from WWII German armies were once stored before being disposed of on site in a pre-environmental regulations era. Yet only another hour away, a new graphite factory using state-of-the-art techniques in Alexander City will refine mined graphite to power electric batteries for Montgomery’s Hyundai plant. Ruthless development tied to equally ruthless economic stripping of economically superfluous areas.

In this way, having been separated from most viable economic activity, Alabama’s hinterlands stand primed for new roles as dumps for waste from elsewhere, a phagocytoxic neo-colonialism surfaces where instead of the North exploiting the state’s raw materials, the North spits out its undesired effluvium, a trajectory possibly to be boosted by China’s clampdown on recycling Western waste.  (3) Southern states supply an attractive alternative, with cheap, plentiful land, low population densities, and capital-friendly business cultures. In such a scenario, disposable people in the rural South will have a future processing toxic discards shipped in from more prosperous locations.

Notes

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.t05.htm

2. “Poop Train From New York Stuck in Parrish Alabama.”https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/04/poop-train-from-new-york-stuck-in-parrish-alabama.html

3. “We’re Not a Dump: Poor Alabama Towns Struggle Under the Stench of Toxic Landfills.?https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/apr/15/were-not-a-dump-poor-alabama-towns-struggle-under-the-stench-of-toxic-landfills

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