Originally published at www.clairensaunders.com.
If I started right now, it would take me 40 hours of nonstop driving to reach my hometown. With FaceTime and phone calls, it is easy to forget that I am about 2,700 mile away from my parents and the house I knew as home for 18 years.
When I actually make the journey from Los Angeles, CA to the small northeastern town of Nanticoke, PA, it feels like I am traveling back in time. I board the time machine in Philadelphia. My time machine is a small propeller plane left over from an airline that is now out of business. It is the only way to get to the one-terminal airport in Scranton, PA. It smells like sweat and cigarettes and reminds me that there was a time when you were actually allowed to smoke on airplanes. Looking around the airplane, I see clothes that were in style back in the 80s, but not the 80s clothes that are fashionable again in LA. The forlorn look on everyone’s face remind me where I am headed.
There is nothing for me there. There are few jobs since the coal mines shut down long before I was born. Even if they had stayed open, we all grew up with the horror stories from our grandparents about the mines. It feels like the town is stuck. Stuck remembering the glory days. Stuck talking about “the old country,” which for most people was Poland. Political signs for Trump & Pence are everywhere. They promised to return places like Nanticoke to their former glory. They even talked about reopening the coal mines to create jobs. (The mines are mostly flooded, they are never going to reopen.) Thinking about it all brings me back to my childhood, when I was ignorant of the politics, told to stay away from mind shafts, and lived close enough to walk to school in some adorable tiny jumper.
Growing up, I had doting parents. My mother was the president of the PTA and head of the Catechism program. My father ran one of the larger and more successful businesses in the county. By trade, both my parents were lawyers. For many people in town, my parents were the only lawyers they knew so when anyone ran into trouble my parents got a phone call. My siblings and I never heard about all of the trouble going on in town, my mother successfully shielded us from it until we figured it out on our own.
One of my favorite examples of all this is about my school lunchbox. My mom would always pack an extreme amount of snacks in my lunch, far more than I could ever eat. I would give these snacks to anyone who asked. Most of the time, these were the boys who needed more calories than the free lunch at school could provide. It wasn’t long until I figured out these people didn’t have enough money for food.
Every morning, my mom woke up around 5 am to pack my lunch. Until my last day in Greater Nanticoke Area, we went through the motions. My mom packed more than I could ever eat, and I passed it along to the right people.
The hunger for food was hardly the only problem in that sad little coal town. In high school, I started to see another kind of hunger. The bathrooms reeked of pot, cigarettes, and cheap booze. Classmates started to show skin manifestations of meth abuse, also known as meth sores. Naively, I would see needle marks and ask if their donated blood. I learned they definitely had not donated blood.
I left Nanticoke for good about 6 years ago. I graduated, went to a college over 4 hours away and never looked back. After I graduated from there, I moved on to a graduate school even further away in California. However, I still feel the connection. Especially when I get texts like the recent one I received from my mother.
My mom was watching the horrors unfold at our neighbor’s house. She was texting us as it was happening. First responders went in, and then they walked out. The coroner was next, followed by the body bag. The man they took out wasn’t much older than me. He was educated, talented, and loved by his family. He was also addicted. His cause of death was a heroin overdose. Knowing the drugs that are decimating the area, it was probably cut with fentanyl.
Not long after those texts from my mom, my parents sent me a piece detailing how the opioid crisis has affected Nanticoke, PA also known as “Heroin City.” That piece is why I am writing this blog post. In the piece they interview a classmate of mine who estimates, “that drugs, addiction, death or prison have taken all but a quarter of her 200 member high school class in the six short years since they all donned caps and gowns.” Personally, I think that number is a little high, but I’m not in the thick of it so I can’t say. Regardless, the amount of Facebook posts I have seen about overdoses from classmates of mine is staggering.
The piece specifically mentions my high school graduating class, the class of 2011. They talk about how the speeches at our graduation now serve as nothing more than a cruel joke. I gave one of those lofty speeches. In my defense, I still believe what I said, that we all had the potential to be whatever we wanted to make of ourselves. I also understand that I was one of a select few who had a fighting chance to get out.
I now live in one of the wealthier parts of Los Angeles, and I attend a school that is consistently ranked as the world’s top university. The environment I am in makes it impossible for me not be aware of my privilege. Often, people ask me where I am from, since hardly anyone is actually from LA. I tell them I am from a small town in Northeast Pennsylvania, endearing known as NEPA. Sometimes, the person will know the place or bother to look it up and ask me, “How are you not in jail?” I answer, “I was one of the lucky ones.”