Joseph Howell wrote Hard Living on Clay Street in 1970 while living in a white, working-class suburb of Washington DC. He was there to gather information about how these types of people actually live their lives, and the book he wrote about it is absolutely fascinating.
My favorite part of this book is the section about the Shackelfords. The Shackelfords are what you might think of when you think of white trash or hillbillies or rednecks. Barry is “tall and thin, has buck teeth (actually they are an upper set of dentures; he lost his lower set years ago), and is wearing blue jeans, a red plaid shirt and a red stocking cap.[He] has not taken these clothes off for over a week. He almost always sleeps in his clothes and is never without his red stocking cap, even in the summer.” Bobbi is caught one day in public wearing “dirty white socks. Not only that, her shoes had holes in them. Her hair was in curlers and she was wearing a ratty old coat- her only coat.” They live paycheck to paycheck, except that it’s not even really that, because Barry Shackelford is an alcoholic and never goes to work. So they never have any money at all, and their day to day life is hectic and stressed because they aren’t even sure what they’re going to eat that night. Bobbi Shackelford serves her kids bottles of milk instead of meals- and they are seven, five, and three years old. But that’s what they want, and she is too tired and anxious to try to change their minds about it. Bobbi’s almost on the verge of insanity, trying to wrangle this huge family and their daily crises- at one point she even gets prescribed tranquilizers for the stress. It’s just too much. None of the hard living families ever think about planning for the future, because making it through each day is hard enough.
Meanwhile, every single person in the family has some debilitating health problem or other. Bobbi’s stepfather is almost blind from cataracts, Barry has a crazy lymph infection under his arm, Bobbi has issues with her lady parts, Cindy and Billy have hearing problems, it’s like it never ends. They’ve always got someone needing a surgery or something and when they get there, the doctors don’t tell them anything so they aren’t sure of the aftercare and their problems end up getting worse. Then they get slapped with the hospital bills, which of course they don’t pay. So then next time they have to try to find a different doctor with a clean slate and it all starts again.
Bobbi’s experiences with “the welfare” are harrowing and awful to read, because you know it’s all true. A system that’s there to help the poor turns out to be a giant headache and waste of time. Take this instance for example: Bobbi shows up at the office at seven to get in line. It opens up at 8:30. “About eight-thirty, when they are supposed to open up, the caseworkers will come wandering in…They won’t say a word; they’ll just breeze past the line of people…Then a little after eight-thirty the receptionist will sort of mosey on out. She might look around and then go back in and get a cup of coffee…Then about eight forty-five they will be ready to start the line…Everybody will rush to the front and sort of jam around and try to get in front of the line…By nine-fifteen or nine-thirty, if we’re lucky and in the first of the line, we’ll get seen. That’s what will happen. You mark my words.” And that’s exactly what happens. Bobbi should have been third in line, but a bunch of people cut in front, and she gets told to come back tomorrow. It’s completely unfair. There are many stories like this about welfare and social workers, told by many different characters. It’s not just a one-time-was-bad type of thing- the whole system is messed up.
Barry’s alcoholism really tears the family apart. They have no stability whatsoever because without a steady job, they don’t have any money, and Bobbi can’t work because she’s taking care of the kids and her stepdad every day. Barry does express a desire to clean himself up and stop drinking. He wants to get a house in the country, have a garden and some livestock, buy good clothes and good food for his children. But the pressures of daily life are just too much and he can’t cope. In his words: “When I’m sober, I start thinking about the bills and the job I got to finish and the goddamn truck’s bad clutch and that I don’t got no driver’s license or auto insurance and Bobbi and the kids and the groceries and all that shit- I just got to go across the street and get me some beer.” And honestly, can I blame him? Can I say that I’ve never done that, never let a glass of whisky drown my troubles? No. I’ve done that. Who hasn’t? Unfortunately, Barry doesn’t have enough self-control to stop when it’s time to stop. Every hard living family in this book struggles with alcoholism. It’s one of the criteria that Joseph Howell uses to determine whether or not a person is considered hard living. And it’s hard to know which came first- the daily struggle for a living or the daily too-much-to-drink? They certainly reinforce each other.
Barry and Bobbi have a complicated relationship, which doesn’t help matters. Bobbi calls Barry out a lot about drinking too much, not helping with the bills, all that stuff. But at the end of the day, she loves Barry. She puts up with all his shit because she loves him. She says, “I’m real depressed and things got me down right now, but there’s one thing I’m thankful for. It’s Barry. You know, there haven’t been many days that we’ve been married- I mean all these years and we’ve been married, Jesus, a long time- there ain’t been many nights that passed when Barry hasn’t told me that he loves me before he went to sleep.” There are lots of instances where you can see real affection between these two, and at one point when a friend mentions that marriage is Barry’s problem he immediately corrects them and says he doesn’t know where he would be without Bobbi. Even as they say this, though, we see them get into fights (verbal and physical) and pick on each other. And later in the book, Bobbi gets sick of Barry and starts looking at moving out and leaving him (like welfare recommends). But welfare isn’t actually going to help her pay for a move or for rent, so she has to stay- and she doesn’t seem too upset by that. Marital instability is one of Mr Howell’s criteria of hard living, and the Shackelfords have it in droves.
There are other parts to this book as well. There is a second hard living family that Joseph Howell documents in detail like he does the Shackelfords, and a third section on a man who lived on Clay Street but who was well-to-do, as a contrast to the other families. Mr Howell also has a superb conclusion, which goes carefully through his “ingredients of hard living” and discusses the similarities and differences between the families on Clay Street. He specifically refuses to go into “the larger reasons” of why these folks live this way, preferring instead to stick to his own observations. And at the end of the book, Mr Howell tells us more about being a participant-observer, the methods he followed, and his feelings on the process, which I really enjoyed reading.
So what did I learn from this book? Deep insights into what it’s like to be a lower-class, white American. In fact, I noticed a lot of similarities between them and myself, in things like finances, uncertainty about the future, etc. They’re just trying to get by the best way that they can. The Shackelfords have “more than their share of problems,” as a neighbor says, and while some of those problems could be avoided, I’m not really the type to condemn or criticize. I don’t want to judge these folks, I just want to understand where they’re coming from- and this book definitely helps me do that. Explaining the lifestyle of the Clay Street folks in terms of sociological theories could be done, but why? I got a better understanding of them by reading their stories than any theory could tell me. As Mr Howell states, “With its many inconsistencies, paradoxes, and contradictions, the humanity of [the characters in the book] prevents me from neatly packaging them into a sociological bundle of theories about the social structure of working-class subculture. On the contrary, for me it is quite difficult to see them as anything but themselves. Their humanity touched me…For having known them and experienced life with them, I will always be grateful.”