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Coming Home to Thanksgiving in Trump Country

It's a culture shock for our city slicker writer, but always worth it.
Beaver Falls

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Thanksgiving Eve might not be a real holiday, but I look forward to it all year. It’s a chance to catch up with high school buddies, run into random old acquaintances, and remind myself of what America looks like outside the Beltway. I never got a chance to experience my hometown’s bar scene in high school or college, so Thanksgiving Eve is one of my only opportunities to, in the words of T.S. Eliot, “arrive where [I] started / And know the place for the first time.”

My plan was to leave my Tuesday night seminar class at Georgetown and drive through the night back to Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania (hometown of Joe Namath!) to spend the holiday with my parents. I was in a bit of a hurry to get on the road, but on my way out of the classroom a fellow student flagged me down to tell me that the ideas I express in my American Conservative articles are problematic and reflect badly on Georgetown. It didn’t matter to her that TAC is a respectable publication. To her, I might as well have been Alex Jones.

Less than 24 hours later, I was knocking back Yuenglings at a local Western PA watering hole called The Corner Tavern. Geographically, I was just over 200 miles from the progressive monoculture of Georgetown. Culturally, I might as well have been on another planet.

Two years ago, when somebody at the Corner played “God Bless the U.S.A.” on the jukebox, every person in the bar sang along, and then several started a chant of “Trump! Trump! Trump!” Last year, I found myself cornered by several angry Deplorables when I dared to express my discomfort with the president’s vocal enthusiasm for torture. If you’re wondering how Trump could have won, go drink at the Corner.

This is not to say that my hometown is solid Trump country. My anecdotal evidence doesn’t hold true on a statistical level. In 2016, Hillary Clinton beat Trump in Beaver Falls by a respectable margin (though he won the ward where both my house and the Corner are located), and the city itself is known as something of a Democratic stronghold, probably due to its strong union legacy. “In Beaver Falls, if Jesus Christ ran as a Republican and Adolf Hitler ran as a Democrat, Hitler would win,” my father once told me. He himself is living proof. When I was in high school, he registered as a Democrat to run for City Council. He’s currently serving his second term as mayor.

The city itself is fairly typical of the Rust Belt. The median income is a little over half the state average, and the poverty rate is about double. The population declined from over 17,000 in 1950 to around 8,000 today as steel mills closed their doors, leaving me to grow up surrounded by their looming husks. I went inside one once and found every calendar turned to the exact date in 1987 when the entire mill was laid off. I’d like to believe the president’s promises about bringing back manufacturing jobs, but the calendars are too poignant a metaphor to be ignored. Those jobs could not be carried into the future. The rest of the town would have to keep flipping their calendars without them.

I grew up on my dad’s stories of Beaver Falls’ main street in its heyday. It was lined with theaters (with grand names like The Granada and The Rialto), hotels, toy stores, men’s clothiers, women’s dress shops, car dealerships, department stores (including Penny’s and Woolworth’s), jewelers, and shoe stores, and every man on the sidewalk wore a suit and tie. Today, almost all of the aforementioned businesses have closed or fled. Many of the proud old brick buildings are boarded up, and small businesses have given way to dollar stores and auto parts chains. Shambling figures in sweatpants are far more common than pedestrians in formal wear. My firefighter friend described opioid addicts overdosing behind the wheel and crashing into buildings on multiple occasions.

Still, the city marches on. Geneva College, a devoutly Presbyterian school with around 1,500 students, is the city’s largest employer. It’s collaborating with Penn State and other local colleges to open a start-up incubator that will encourage graduates to stay in the area. The overdose rate has slackened off. Crime is in decline. The downtown still boasts landmarks like the Carnegie Library and the famous Oram’s Donuts (we all lost our minds when it was mentioned on a short-lived CBS drama) and attractive new businesses like Hutch & Home furniture. Thanks to a grant, that downtown will soon become the second in the state to offer reverse angle parking.

I’m never quite sure how to dress for Thanksgiving Eve. Moving away, first for college and then for work and grad school, has robbed me of my effortless at-home-ness, leaving me stuck in a strange limbo between sociological detachment and localist love for a place that is not just a place. I want to avoid “slumming it” and feeling like a poser, but I also don’t want to stick out as some sort of effete urbanite. This year, I chose a casual outfit consisting of brown boots, dark jeans, and my Georgetown sweatshirt.

For my troubles, I was accosted by a red-headed and red-bearded denizen of the Corner who, after chatting with me for a minute with his face way too close to mine, leaned in even farther and said with a slight tremor in his voice, “So I assume you’re gay.” My initial, indignant response (which I somewhat regret) was something along the lines of, “Oh, so because I wear glasses and put gel in my hair, I must like dudes?!” In that moment, I felt a profound gulf between me and that crowd of people wearing shirts and sweatpants they got at Walmart. At the same time, I reproached myself for the thought.

My firefighter friend had flaked to hang out with his new girlfriend, and my other good friend was busy tending bar (making extra money to provide for the coming bambino, no doubt), so I ended up spending most of the night with two guys: Dean, a married social worker with a Criminal Justice degree from Geneva, and Lou, a single college dropout landscaper.

At one point, Lou and I left the bar and walked to his truck. I (fairly intoxicated) whooped at the sky and yelled to no one in particular, “This is America! Isn’t America great?!”

As he drove us away, I turned to Lou and, much more calmly, said something like “You know, this is a great little town. I love it here.”

“Yeah. You hear a lot of negativity about Beaver Falls, but what makes the difference is whether or not the right people stick around,” he replied.

I felt Wendell Berry’s disapproval looming over me. In his essay “Henry Caudill in the Cumberlands,” Berry praises the eponymous Caudill for returning to his hometown in Eastern Kentucky and using the law degree he earned at a distant university to defend his birthplace from the ravages of the coal industry. I, on the other hand, took my B.A. and skipped town.

“I know, man,” I said. “I still feel guilty about it sometimes.”

“Don’t feel bad,” Lou said. “I’d like to get outta here too.” He told me about his dream of heading up north and becoming a lumberjack.

I’m not sure I’ll ever return to Beaver Falls to live. My decision to marry a girl from out of state certainly makes it less likely. There will, however, always be a part of me that loves it, even if I don’t feel quite at home anymore.

Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. student at Georgetown University.