When the elderly woman spoke to me after I said “hi” outside our apartment complex’s communal laundromat, her words tumbled out with the unmistakable grammar of terrible loneliness. She had a slightly anxious, furtive look, as if she was caught red-handed committing a terrible crime at the same time that she seemed equally relieved to speak with someone, anyone. Her words came out in a word salad, sometimes unclear and she got nervous realizing that. But at the end she smiled and asked about my dog. I imagine her sitting alone in her apartment days at a time, with no human contact and only the ever-present flickering light of the TV for companionship. Rarely, I sometimes see her walking down the hill to the local Dollar General. Except for that and doing her weekly laundry, she stays isolated to herself.
Last summer, another elderly woman, she must have been in her 70s, sat on and off over a weekend on the bench in front of our mailboxes near the rental office, carrying several shopping bags of clothes, wearing a bright red wrap around for the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide team and over-sized Greta Garbo glasses. She cut quite a figure and radiated charming, other-worldly eccentricity, which was immediately confirmed when she spoke. She told me she was sitting there until her Social Security check came on the 1st when she planned to rent an apartment. I thought she was making it up, but sure enough she rented the apartment. Later, she told me she had slept in the woods while waiting for her check.
With these two women, both with thick Alabama accents, I wondered where were their children? Maybe they were childless. Or maybe their children were strung-out on crystal meth or Oxys, running the streets, incarcerated or dead. Or more likely, their children had moved away, pursuing careers, starting new families and had little time or interest in keeping touch.
Several months ago, one night I helped another older man, always dressed in an over-sized, crumpled suit, who said he had lost his keys. I shimmied on my stomach under his car looking for them until he triumphantly announced he had found them in his pocket after all. He struck me as another “lonesome monster,” in the poignant term of Nelson Algren, that great chronicler of American loneliness, someone isolated and uncomfortable being around other people and he quickly darted up the stairs. Months later when I ran into him again, he gave me an untouched Olive Garden take out when I dog-walked past his building. It was an attempt at connection, however tenuous. Someone else told me he taught at Oakwood College, but acted “weird.”
Timothy P. Carney in his excellent new book, Alienated America, notes that Trump got his strongest support from those areas where people had little contact with others outside their immediate family, if even that. As Carney points out,
“People enmeshed in strong communities rejected Trump in the early primaries while people alienated, abandoned, lacking social ties and community rushed to him immediately.
Trump’s best large county in the Iowa caucuses, Pottawattamie, had the weakest civil society – churches, neighborhood groups, volunteering, voting – of any large county in Iowa, and is known instead for its neon-lighted casinos erected to bring in out-of-state gamblers.”
I think this is essentially true and doubly true in rural areas, where physical separation and shrinking populations feed even more into endemic social isolation. I am lucky to be living in a mid-sized Southern city where the disengagement Carney talks about isn’t as common. Even in a “high poverty” neighborhood such as where I live, people in my complex leave their doors open during the day for other neighbors to visit, some (but not all) bikes remain untethered (and are still there the next day) and patio furniture survives unchained without walking away overnight. Robert Putnam of “Bowling Alone” would be pleased to know that bowling leagues still thrive in my stretch of northern Alabama (in fact, I was asked to join one last year).
Yet for all this communitarian glow, I can’t help but recall Richard Sennett’s observation in The Fall of Public Man that a strength of early capitalism was that it broke up the community. What Sennett meant was the dynamism of capitalism overturned the stasis of tradition-bound village life accumulated for centuries. Early twentieth century French sociologist George Palante, arguing against Emile Durkheim’s negative concept of anomie, cheered the lack of social connection in large cities because he thought urban anonymity allowed non-conforming individuals a free space to escape oppressive social control. The ultimate question though is, where on the continuum between strong and weak social ties, does the balance shift to a metastasizing and corrosive isolation, as it is doing today? Reading the comments of middle-aged rural participants in the Giles Jaunes, many say that participation has given them ties they never had before. It is one reason, I believe, why months later the movement continues and why so many previously non-political people still participate, despite the vicious and unparalleled police brutality visited upon them, a brutality both the United Nations and EU are investigating.
I heard a knock on my door. It was the woman upstairs, a middle-aged African-American woman with whom I had little contact. I only knew she rarely went out and her only visits were an occasional visit from her ex-con brother, who always wore those made-in-prison, boxed caps inmates with too much dead time sew. When she spoke, I could tell she had a severe speech impediment and was developmentally disabled. She smiled and asked me, stammering, if I had a book of matches. I smiled back and gave her one. Now, we have some connection. I expect – and hope- to see her at my door again.