One evening, after the Jentel presentation/reading in Sheridan, Wyoming, I was approached by an older gentleman. He seemed slightly shy, but determined to tell me what was on his mind, and he jumped right to it, not bothering with literary coquetry or forced compliments. “I could tell you were from Youngstown,” he said, grinning.
Earlier in the night, before reading from a new group of poems about a post-apocalyptic refugee (I may have scandalized the audience with the one about cannibalism), I explained that my fascination with decaying landscapes is rooted in the history of the steel industry throughout what is now the Midwestern rust belt. Specifically, I blamed my place of origin, Youngstown, Ohio, for my obsession with post-apocalyptic wastelands. Indeed, the closure of a huge portion of Youngstown Sheet and Tube on ‘Black Monday’ in 1977 was an economic apocalypse for Youngstown, and while I grew up surrounded by some beautiful natural scenery, I also saw a lot of rust.
“Even before you told us, I could tell,” the Wyoming gentleman before me insisted. To my knowledge, I hadn’t used any Youngstown-specific phrasing, such as “yous guys,” “yins,” (leaked in from Pittsburgh) or “buggy” (an area-favored alternative to grocery cart). I hadn’t talked about Briar Hill pizza, Mill Creek Park, or Jim Traficant. What had made it so obvious?
“Your speech patterns and your mannerisms,” he said. “I came here from Wadsworth, Ohio, but I still have some family in Youngstown.”
Is there a subtle verbal tick or eye twitch that all Youngstowners have, but that can only be detected by fellow Youngstowners? Or was this man’s comment simply a way to make conversation about a shared history? It is a history worth sharing—one of which I’m proud, even as I make jokes about the color of the Mahoning River.
I’m always happy to find fellow Youngstowners in unexpected places, like Wyoming, and I often do (perhaps because everyone is fleeing, as my mother suggested). During my first year in Wilmington, NC, while sitting on a crowded Wrightsville Beach with some friends, we were asked by the strangers sitting on the sand in front of us about the value of learning to surf versus learning a land sport. The strangers (two men who might have been slightly younger than me) explained that they were visiting from Youngstown. “Oh! I’m from Youngstown!” I said. After discovering that we had a few mutual acquaintances, one of the young men said, “Well, since you’re from Youngstown, you’ll know where we can get some good Italian food around here.” I did know that, in fact, but it was probably because there are only a handful of good restaurants in Wilmington, and not because Youngstown has imbued me with magical pasta-sniffing powers.
Last year, I met a poet whose wife happens to be from Youngstown—she even attended the same Catholic high school that I did. He said the same thing about Youngstown that the Wyoming gentleman said, and that many people who are slightly familiar with Youngstown have said: “That’s a pretty depressed area.” Well, yes, it is. But it’s also a very interesting area, partly because of the investment and pride that has been put into the city by its native residents—especially those in my generation, many of whom are returning expats. The amount of tee shirts, bumper stickers, websites, and local bands that bear the name of the city, or glorify some aspect of its history—the good and the bad—seems much larger than in the past, perhaps as a rebellion or defense against the idea that Youngstown is an economically “depressed area,” and therefore worthless.
There is a certain kind of camaraderie among Youngstowners in the face of this idea. Often it can be sentimental and nostalgic, and often it takes the form of imagined shared experiences and characteristics (“Your speech patterns and your mannerisms”)—similar to family stories that are embellished a little with each telling, and while everyone in the room knows that it didn’t quite happen that way, they all let it slide until they’ve created their own shared, not-quite-accurate-but-very-entertaining memory. This is common to most cities, I’m sure, but it seems there is something different about the brand of embellished camaraderie in Youngstowners—something only we have, and that only we can recognize when we see it. Or perhaps we all made that up too?
This seems only appropriate: