“Back Row America”

The phrase “back row America” in the London Guardian caught my eye. The article is about American towns and cities that remain unaffected by the economic boom. The focus in this piece is on Gary, Indiana — the state where Mike Pence was governor, if you recall.

The author, Chris Arnade, has a new book, Dignity, from which this article is drawn.

In back row America McDonalds, which is likely to be just down the street from WalMart, a bail bondsman, several payday loan companies, and a pawn shop, is the town’s de facto community center. People sit there all day, out of the harsh weather, in a social environment with access to coffee and cheap food. They play dominoes, read the Bible, stare through big glass windows into the wrecked neighborhoods that used to thrive when Gary was an industrial city. Homeless people use the rest room and wash out their clothes, drying things with the hand drier mounted on the wall.

Back row American sounds unrelievedly depressing. No wonder people turn to drugs.

At another table is an older man about Sylvester’s age, dressed entirely in white except for a black Stetson. He introduces himself as Jesus Christ, without any hint of craziness. He is friendly and in the mood to chat, talking about his past, talking about his work.

“I grew up here, only went away to do two years in the army, then worked for Ford Motors for 18.9 years.” Like Sylvester, he talks about how Gary was when he was younger, about the bars, the clubs, the gambling. When he is done, I ask him if he is religious. He stops.

Well, I believe in reading the Bible.”

I ask him why he goes by Jesus Christ, and he pulls out his wallet and shows me his driver’s license and bank card – both with the name Jesus Christ.

Before I leave, I ask him one last question: “I don’t mean to be rude, but you ever been mixed up with drugs?”

He smiles.

“Not much. I quit all that. Just do cocaine now.”


Does it matter, to the rest of us, that there is back row American to be found in every region of the country? That’s another way of asking whether profound inequality matters. Let’s watch the all the candidates on the 2020 stump, and see who, other than Elizabeth Warren, talks about back row America in any serious way.

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