I grew up in the decaying mill town of Utica, New York, among gas-station attendants, nuns, glass-workers, alcoholics, conveyor-belt workers, and factory-hands. They were mostly devout Catholics--Italian, Polish, and Irish--and, when offered the chance, equally devout in their devotion to their labor unions. Utica boomed during World War II, churning out khaki for Army jackets and other raw clothing products, but began to suffer in the postwar years; as one neighbor told me, "Johnny, V-J Day hit Utica harder than it did Japan." And like many northern working towns, Utica's economy began to collapse long before NAFTA--in the '50s and '60s, when union-busting companies shifted production down South, to the so-called "right-to-work," non-union states like North Carolina and Arkansas. As a kid, you could feel the difference every September: each year when you returned to school there were fewer and fewer kids in class. At the dawn of the '50s, the population of Utica was 120,000; it's now around 60,000-- and the whites that remain mostly do so because they can't sell their houses, even at prices--like $20,000--that you wouldn't believe any house could sell for in modern-day America. The library where I escaped into books is long-since boarded up. Even the zoo's been shut down. The only employers of any size are bleak, foreboding prisons.
The people of Utica are the people Bruce Springsteen sings about, the same people that Hillary Clinton and John McCain are so piously--and moronically--insisting are shocked, absolutely shocked to be called "bitter." But the truth is, only a condescending, out-of-touch carpetbagger could assume these people are stupid enough to be patronized this way. As one neighbor told me--during the height of Bill Clinton's presidency--"Johnny, it used to be you could be sure of one thing in this life: if you worked hard every day, went to church on Sunday, and voted Democratic, your kids could have a better life than you did. Now that's all over, and nobody even says nothin' about it! The Republicans don't care. The Democrats don't care...John--you managed to get out of here, so you must be smart...What the hell happened to this country?"
Smart or not, I had no answer to Sammy Cavallo's question as we sat in that cramped living-room on Bradford Avenue, in 1998, amid the porcelain doggies and blown-glass figurines and gold-and-purple Catholic icons. I could only swallow hard and ask myself the same question. But in searching for an honest answer I'd find help from Bruce Springsteen's later work, beginning with The River, in which he draws haunting portraits of the Sammy Cavallos and the other dispossessed members of the white working-class. So it didn't surprise me today to read that Springsteen has endorsed Barack Obama, nor to see that--to the complete bewilderment of Clinton, McCain and the media--the "Johnny 99s" of Springsteen's world, like the Sammy Cavallos of mine, are not rising to the bait and turning on Obama. When you actually come from that world--whether it's Utica, or Youngstown, Ohio, or Allentown, Pennsylvania--you want to scream in Clinton's face on TV: do you think we're total morons? Do you really think that standing at a bar pretending to drink shots, or reading contrived and badly-ghostwritten speeches professing solidarity with us, is going to fool us yet again?
Well, according to the polls, it's not working. And thank God. Stop asking the long-ignored, long-abused people of Rust-Belt America to participate in their own destruction. They've had enough of it--especially after Bill Clinton's NAFTA and GATT gutted them all over again. Stop cynically exploiting their very real fears. Stop putting that fake-reverent hush in your voice and invoking a "faith" in them you never showed when it mattered. Try giving them one honest answer instead--and let's start with Sammy Cavallo's question: what the hell happened to this country?