From the August 22, 1994 issue of New York Magazine.
“If I hadn’t been married, I’d probably have propositioned her myself,” Mark Brown says of his sister-in-law Paula Corbin Jones, who is suing President Clinton for sexual harassment. “Paula dressed—shit, provocative ain’t even the word for it. You could see the crease of her ass, and at least two lips, maybe three. If a woman dresses to where a man is almost seeing it… .”
“She’d wear a black tank top, tight-fitting and real low,” Charlotte Brown says of her youngest sister, “and leopard-skin spandex shorts.”
“Once after she came out of the bathroom with a gob of makeup on her,” Mark says, drawing on a Winston, “I got my pocketknife out and I said, ‘If you stand real still, I bet I could get three or four jars of Maybelline off your face.’ “
The Browns sit under a live oak in front of their double-wide trailer in Cabot, Arkansas. A buzzard drifts overhead. Charlotte wears a rhinestone-spangled COUNTRY BLUES T-shirt, and Mark a denim shirt with his cuffs rolled up to reveal various tattoos: a dragon, a dancing showgirl, a Harley-Davidson emblem. Cabot itself, population 8,319, is one of those uneasy junctions that signpost a changing America. The Cabot Pawn Shop is deep in shotguns and hunting crossbows; funnel cakes are on sale downtown; and rumpled farms with front-yard tire swings quilt the countryside—until they slam into the Tastee-Freez, the sorry subdivisions, the billboard that commands you to FILL YOUR TANK TWICE at Texaco and McDonald’s.
The Browns have a foot in each world: Mark used to be a D.J. at a Little Rock club, but now he runs a small welding shop. By either standard—old-fashioned country morals or modern situational ethics—the Browns disapprove of Paula Jones’s behavior. They call her a hard-partying gold digger who pinched men’s butts at the local Red Lobster and who’s now trying to capitalize on a flirtation at the country’s expense.
“Paula knows the rules, and now she’s trying to change them,” Mark says. “This is a great country; it’s freedom-based. I like some white sons a bitches and I like some black motherfuckers. I hate some niggers and I hate some white trashes. Shit, I’ve worked right beside a welding woman—”
“You didn’t sexually harass her, did you?” Charlotte prompts proudly.
“No, I think I did,” Mark says. “She didn’t take it as sexual harassment, though, so it must not have been. If I’m driving down the freeway and I see a dadgum woman that’s got a good set of boobs and she’s bouncing around on a dozer mowing down saplings, you bet your ass Mark Brown will stop his damned truck and stare. If her tits is going boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, and bouncing left and right and every fucking thing, you got rock and roll going on, man; and she knows what the hell she’s doing up there, or she’d have a bra on.”
American history is a parade of eras dominated by charismatic stock figures. These role-players bestride the popular imagination by sheer bravado; they become, for a time, the lodestars by which the rest of the country defines itself. We’ve had the era of Squanto; that of the Pilgrim; the Minuteman; the Indian fighter; the carpetbagger; the cowboy; the robber baron; the flapper; the doughboy; the organization man; the hippie; and, in the eighties, the soulless yuppie.
Now comes a new archetype to enslave us—and she enters spackled with Maybelline. The male version, “fondling his penis,” asks the handiest female to “kiss it”—or so Paula Corbin Jones has alleged. Welcome to the age of white trash.
Traditionally, the label white trash has been applied to selective members of the white underclass—a rapidly growing group. In 1990, according to the census bureau, 24.5 million Caucasians were below the poverty line, up 29 percent from 17.3 million in 1980 (these figures are somewhat misleading as they include white Hispanics). “In raw numbers,” notes conservative thinker Charles Murray, “European-American whites are the ethnic group with the most people in poverty, most illegitimate children, most women on welfare, most unemployed men, and most arrests for serious crimes.”
But demographics are only part of the story. What’s alarming is not so much the burgeoning number of people with low-rent circumstances as the exponential spread in stereotypically white-trash behavior, whether exhibited by those in the underclass or by figures like Roseanne Arnold and Bill Clinton.
The term white trash is, to be sure, divisive and classist. (The appellation originated among southern racists as a way to explain how certain “different” whites could behave so crudely.) Soon saying it may be altogether unacceptable. “In six months, no one will say ‘white trash,’” predicts director John (Pink Flamingos, Serial Mom) Waters. “It’s the last racist thing you can say and get away with.” Certainly, too, New Yorkers are hardly in a position to patronize cultural regression elsewhere.
But white trash best encapsulates the galloping sleaze that has overrun both rural and urban America. And it’s also the phrase that best gives voice to the stifled longing of the well-to-do, who covet what they perceive as the spontaneous authenticity of the poor. “In the summer in Baltimore, whole families live outside on their front steps,” John Waters notes admiringly. “They watch TV in their bras and underwear, and if someone comes by, they give them the finger. I’m jealous of their confidence and their alarming taste—they’re just freer than I am; they don’t worry as much.”
The allure of guilt-free freedom explains the mainstream intoxication with white-trash cultural tokens. The Guess? jeans ads have been only the most visible manifestation of a whole white-trash-fashion movement: candy-apple lipstick, chipped cherry-red nail polish, fishnet stockings, rhinestone earrings and dime-store barrettes, Candie’s mules, tattoos—of which Drew Barrymore alone has five.
But in truth white-trash behavior is a bleak phenomenon, defined well by Ernest Mickler in his book White Trash Cooking: “Common white trash has very little in the way of pride, and no manners to speak of, and hardly any respect for anybody or anything.” In this light we see white trash’s moon-face beaming out at us from the Big Gulp lines at every 7. Eleven; from spring break at Daytona Beach; from every graceless winner of the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes; and from all wearers of T-shirts emblazoned I’M WITH STUPID.
(And Charlotte and Mark Brown, though scraping by on Mark’s disability pension, are not, by our behavioral definition, white trash—they turned down a $2,000 offer for an interview on A Current Affair. “We could certainly have used the money,” Charlotte says, “but we didn’t need any money for the truth.”)
Trash values metastasize through our cultural lymph nodes; television screens. There’s Cops and Jenny Jones and Richard Bey and Hard Copy and Studs; and there’s Fox, which is virtually a white-trash network. Of the hottest romance on television’s trendiest show, Fox’s Melrose Place, Grant Show has said that what fuels the passion between Amanda and his character, Jake (whom Amanda has termed a “gold-digging grease monkey”), is that “even though Amanda’s got more money than most of the chicks he’s gone with, she’s still just white trash like he is.”
Trash blares from behind the scenes of Roseanne, where Tom and Roseanne Arnold jointly “married” Tom’s assistant, Kim Silva. As Roseanne said in her July petition for divorce—from Tom, that is, not from Kim—”I now realize that I have been a classic battered and abused wife.” Whatever the truth of that, Tom did sell stories about her to the National Enquirer, and he was arrested for public urination outside a McDonald’s; she, of course, says she used to turn tricks in the parking lot between comedy gigs. Turning to face the strange, both NBC and Fox are developing fact-based dramas about her life.
A clear symptom of the white-trash epidemic is that trash signifiers and behavior have become slipperier, crossing ethnic lines. Consider slaphappy Hungarian Zsa Zsa Gabor; the two Italian-Americans, John Esposito and Salvatore Inghilleri, who, respectively, were convicted of kidnapping and of sexually abusing Katie Beers; and the voguish Asian-American model Jenny Shimizu. Shimizu flexes tattoos of a blue spark plug and a blonde straddling an eight-inch wrench; she eats a lot of Big Macs and is fond of leaving “You suck” messages on friends’ answering machines, using her talking Beavis and Butt-head toy.
And trash now lurks in an upscale guise at the euphemistic “gentlemen’s clubs”—joints with a dress code for customers and an undress code for employees. Last year, 10 million customers spent $3 billion at places like Stringfellow’s, where a table dance costs $20 and where men in ties and suspenders watch topless women crawl around “winking, purring, and sometimes barking,” as the New York Times wonderingly put it.
Even once-lofty venues have fallen—the Olympics, for instance, where Tonya Harding stole the show. “Pool-hustling, drag-racing, cigarette-smoking, trash-talking Tonya,” as a quickie bio describes her. She of the bleached, permed hair; the blank, cheap eyes; the rabbit-fur coat and the job working at Spud City. She who skated to ZZ Top and whose bodyguard, Shawn Eckardt, drove a 1974 Mercury with missing hubcaps. She whose ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, just sold the X-rated video of their wedding night to Penthouse, which has made it available to a bemused public through an 800-number.
Politics, while often venal, once had a patina of respectability; now it’s a vast trashscape. James Carville proudly tells me, “I’m white trash myself” and riffs into a series of jokes about ways to tell if you are, too: “A ceiling fan messes up your sister’s hairdo”; “Your brother-in-law is also your uncle”; etc. Whitewater, though numbingly complex, is at bottom a pure good-old-boy scam; the Clintons’ former partner, James McDougal, lived up to that tradition when he came to the Whitewater hearings accompanied by one Tamra Meacham, a student from Arkansas’s Ouachita Baptist University who modeled bleached-blonde hair and a teensy-weensy black dress. Daniel Patrick Moynihan terms Clinton’s welfare-reform ideas “boob bait for the Bubbas,” and we are reminded anew that our president’s family tree has bubbas on every branch—his father’s acorns, in fact, keep turning up.
Clinton’s mom, Virginia Kelley, married four times, wagered furiously at the track, and worshiped Elvis—the white-trash icon. The president’s stepfather Roger, known as Dude, was an abusive alcoholic. The president’s ex-cokehead half-brother, another Roger and a dude in his own right, parlayed his demi-genetic serendipity into roles in such films as Pumpkinhead 2: Blood Wings and commercials for Comedy Central set in a mock-Oval Office with a faux-leopard-skin chair.
And Howard Stern—Howard Stern—ran a bizarre, abortive race for governor of New York.
Then, again, there is Paula Corbin Jones. “Paula asked me, ‘What would be a good drink that would cost a lot?’ ” Mark Brown says. “I said, ‘Amaretto on the rocks, water back.’ You can get a good buzz off it, but mainly it’s for women. I said to her later, ‘What the hell you wanting to know all this shit for?’ And she said, ‘I got to find out if somebody’s got money or not, if he can pay for this.’ “
“She told Mark and myself many times that she would marry somebody with money,” Charlotte Brown says. “She has very expensive tastes. She had known him [Steve Jones, now her husband] barely a week and he bought her a leather couch; he bought her an amethyst ring, a real expensive purse—it’s called a Gucci bag—and a matching wallet. She told me they cost $250 apiece.” Paula had also sniffed the lingering musk of Elvis: Steve Jones had played Presley’s ghost in the Jim Jarmusch movie Mystery Train. According to People, Paula boasted to a friend, “He looks just like Elvis, and talks like him.” (The marriage of Elvis’s daughter, Lisa Marie, to alleged child-fancier and white-guy-wannabe Michael Jackson is, in trash terms, the whitest shade of pale. It’s also just plain weird.)
Candy-apple lipstick, chipped cherry-red nail polish, fishnet stockings, rhinestone earrings, Candie’s mules, tattoos.
Jones has denied the Browns’ portrait of her as a loose woman and declared that “some American people have put in their minds that I’m a liar, a lowlife come out of l’il ol’ Lonoke, Arkansas.” Well, yes. Jones recently accepted $50,000 from No Excuses jeans, apparently unaware of the company’s previous campaigns with Marla Maples and Donna Rice. (Tonya Harding is so trashy even No Excuses turned her down.) When Clinton’s lawyer Robert Bennett wanted to disparage Jones’s suit, he called it “tabloid trash”—but everyone knew what he meant.
The curious thing about the Browns, the point almost lost in the media fix on them as the skeptics, is that they do believe that Jones and Governor Clinton had some kind of involvement in the Excelsior Hotel. “She talked to me about that day in 1991,” Charlotte says, “told me that Governor Clinton had dropped his pants in the hotel room, asked her to perform oral sex, and she’d refused. But how she said it, it was like it was flattering.”
How did we get to such a pitch of low expectation about our fellow citizens’ behavior that this lurid scenario barely registers as a distraction from the O. J. Simpson case? Where we idly watch as the disputed facts are gummed to a gooey cud in the media maw? Jones might not have filed suit if Clinton had prevailed upon his friend the producer Harry Thomason to give her a job in Hollywood. Now, in revenge, we can expect her to sell her story for a movie of the week—perhaps Kiss It: The Paula Corbin Jones Story.
In 1916, hobo and Wobblies agitator Harry Kirby McLintock predicted in his “Hymn of Hate”: “And The Day shall come, with a red, red dawn;/ And you in your gilded halls,/ Shall taste the wrath and vengeance of the men in overalls.” The Day is at hand. Yet the men in overalls have triumphed not because of the puissance of organized labor but because when it comes to behavior, America is wearing Osh Kosh B’Gosh. Like the urbanities in Deliverance, we have found ourselves in the grinning clutches of sexually predatory backwoodsmen. White-trash culture commands us to “squeal like a pig!” And we’re oinking.
Since the first rawboned indentured servants came to America from Europe, a white underclass has simmered on our back burner. These are the Snopeses who live on the poorest land in the South, in Appalachia, in Oklahoma, the ones for whom the certified check of American promise always bounces. “Fierce craving boys,” Nelson Algren called them, the ones “with a feeling of having been cheated.” “The white world’s vermin and filth …” W.E.B. Du Bois said, more angrily and less specifically, those “shameless breeders of bastards,/ drunk with the greed of gold,/ … bearing the white man’s burden/ of liquor and lust and lies!”
White trash has ever been in the eye of the beholder, and as a lay classification, it remains a way to pinion someone to his roots, to deny him upward mobility. In Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter stingingly tells FBI trainee Clarice Starling, “You’re a well-scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste … desperate not to be like your mother… . But you’re not more than one generation out of the mines, Officer Starling. [In the movie, it’s out of “poor white trash.”] Is it the West Virginia Starlings or the Okie Starlings, Officer?”
But even as the term passes into the realm of the unsayable, white trash’s connotations increasingly describe America. The country is becoming underclass-laden, illiterate, promiscuous, and just plain fat. A recent report by the Labor and Commerce departments showed constant-dollar median income declining from 1972 to 1990 by 23 percent for men with less than a high-school education, and by 5 percent for women from the same group. The well educated did much better. There is a spirited debate over who’s responsible for the widening gap between the have and the have-nots, but the fact is that the number of have-nots is growing. “Trash gets all the working poor who fall out of the middle class—the middle-class boys gone bad,” notes Dorothy Allison, author of the novel Bastard out of Carolina and the short-story collection Trash. “It’s the difference between thinking your life is hopeless and knowing it is.”
The Educational Testing Service reports a drop in young-adult literacy from 1985 to 1992. Sexual-partner numbers are hard to compare because of differing methodologies, but it’s suggestive to contrast the 1953 Kinsey Report, in which just 5 percent of females reported having had more than ten premarital partners, with the 1993 Janus Report, which shows 55 percent of women having had more than ten partners—an elevenfold increase.
And according to the government, the number of overweight adults, which had held steady from 1960 to 1980 at 25 percent of the population, suddenly ballooned to 33 percent between 1980 and 1991. We gained a collective 155 million pounds last year, even as Kathleen Sullivan dieted furiously. (The boom in comfort food is very white trash. In White Trash Cooking, Ernest Mickler’s recipe for a “High-Calorie Pick-Me-Up” directs you to “pour a small bag of Tom’s peanuts into a cold Pepsi. Turn it up and eat and drink at the same time.”)
Traditionally, to find white-trash backgrounds, one looked for “artificial grass, velvet paintings, double-wide trailers adjoined as a sign of status, fish sticks, Spam, muscle cars, John Deere caps, sideburns, collections of dolls or Hummelware, pink flamingos in the front yard, painted tires that hold flowers, and people who like Liberace or Elvis,” says Michael J. Weiss, a demographer who draws up cultural maps of the country. His maps of above-average concentrations of National Enquirer readers and mobile-home owners carve out a Trash Belt of the eleven states of the old Confederacy (excluding Atlanta), Maine, Appalachia, strips of rural Texas and Arizona, and pockets of the Midwest.
Hollywood has turned to such maps for clues in its perpetual treasure hunt. Previously we got the risible (Buford Pusser) or the cloddishly endearing (Jim Varney’s Ernest character). But now screenwriters are obsessed with the idea of the road-tripping, spontaneous, and often murderous poor. (It is ever tempting for Hollywood to impute authenticity to the ignorant—and to give them bodacious bods.) In addition to the forthcoming Natural Born Killers, we’ve been visited with Guncrazy, True Romance, A Perfect World, and Kalifornia.
“It’s totally about sex,” says director John Waters. “Extreme white people”—Waters’s preferred term for the white underclass—”look incredibly beautiful until they’re 20, and then they look about 50. It’s a sexual fantasy for people in movies, who don’t meet those sort of people very much—it’s the idea of the bad boy, the juvenile delinquent.”
Movies give us an airbrushed dream of white trash: alluring and deadly. Television, on the other hand, locks us into a trash feedback loop. “The explosion of tabloid TV sensationalizes problems that were previously repressed and unarticulated, except as small-town gossip,” says Mary Matalin, host of Equal Time (and wife of James Carville). “Ten years ago, no one would talk about fat, incest, and wife or child abuse. Now, with Tonya [Harding] or the Bobbitts, it’s tantamount to why we used to go look at the Elephant Man or the Lobster Boy.”
Fittingly, the latest trash scandal involves “Lobster Boy” Grady Stiles Jr. of Gibsonton, Florida, a footless carnival attraction whose two-fingered hands looked like claws. Stiles’s wife, Mary Teresa (previously married to a dwarf), was just convicted of conspiring to kill Grady as he relaxed at home in his underwear; Mary Teresa’s unsuccessful defense was that he had sexually abused her, head-butted her, and swatted her with his pincer hands. Since Phil Donahue began the genre in 1967, daytime talk has never run out of such gross turpitudes—indeed, the cat-fights and jaw-dropping catastrophes give Greg Kinnear an endless supply of highlights to smirk at daily on Talk Soup.
But most people don’t watch to scoff. Penn State sociologist Vicki Abt, who recently studied 1,000 hours of Oprah, Donahue, and Sally Jessy Raphaël, estimates that 90 percent of the guests are illiterate, and suspects that the viewers aren’t building their vocabulary much either: “If you see shows about men who sleeps with their mother-in-law enough, people get used to those things,” she says. “If you see this all the time, the man who doesn’t sleep with his mother-in-law will eventually become strange … . A child sees that if he acts terribly, he might get on Phil, Sally, or Oprah.”
Indeed, not only is there no manifest reward in our society for behaving well; there is now a reward for behaving badly—the fifteen camera crews on hand to immortalize Joey Buttafuoco’s exit from prison after he’d served his term for statutory rape; the reported $500,000 he made from A Current Affair; the $200,000 he made from the CBS movie Casualties of Love. Witness John Wayne Bobbitt, who has made hundreds of thousands of dollars on a “Love Hurts” media tour featuring appearances where he autographs steak knives and plays “Stump the Bobbitt,” a contest testing his knowledge of Bobbitt-castration jokes. He has begun marketing a Bobbitt penis protector, made by the Klimax Corporation, and is negotiating with Playboy for a photo spread in which his sometime fiancée, former topless dancer Kristina Elliott, shucks her clothes while he, with becoming shyness, keeps his on. Modestly, too, he turned down $1 million last week to do a porn movie featuring his reassembled manroot.
Ponder also Kris Belman, a leader of the infamous Lakewood, California, Spur Posse. Belman had been charged with—and would later be put on probation for—committing lewd and lascivious acts with a 13-year-old girl. But after he appeared on Jenny Jones and Inside Edition, “a lot of girls called,” he reported happily. “I went out with them.”
And Gennifer Flowers, who in the wake of Paula Jones’s accusations marketed her phone-call “love tapes” with Bill Clinton for $19.95, was outraged by a caller to a Florida radio show who suggested she was leveraging her own immorality. “You better just shut your mouth!” Flowers shouted. “I’m here to put some factual information to you idiots out there!”
White-trash culture commands us to “squeal like a pig!” And we’re oinking.
Whatever happened to the useful idea of shame? (Any vestiges of our expectations about guilt, the private, less-conscious version of shame, vanished with the Menendezes.) When James Agee wrote about Alabama sharecroppers in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), his shame at his comparative social and journalistic advantages was matched only by the sharecroppers’ shame at the exposure of their pitiful circumstance. “There was in their eyes so quiet and ultimate a quality of hatred and contempt, and anger,” Agee wrote, “toward every creature in existence beyond themselves, and toward the damages they sustained, as shone scarcely short of a state of beatitude.”
Nowadays, shame is felt only by those who remain obscure, who never get the call from Montel Williams. Jessica Hahn, the then-mousy church secretary who was sexually abused by televangelist Jim Bakker in a Florida hotel room and later paid $265,000 in hush money, felt deep shame for years. But the klieg lights of publicity are better than a therapist’s couch. Only posing topless for Playboy in 1987, she said, “made me feel clean again.” Hahn’s passage from shame to shamelessness ended in white-trash nirvana: She became a regular on the Howard Stern Show, a featured star in such Stern videos as “Butt Bongo Fiesta.”
As Stern himself bellicosely notes about the shame question: “How many guys have the balls to ask their mom if she takes it up the ass?” More and more, apparently. Stern’s pay-per-view New Year’s Eve pageant grossed a record-setting $15 million; its judges were Hahn and John Wayne Bobbitt. “If Howard Stern didn’t exist,” Reverend A1 Sharpton has correctly observed, “white trash would not have a superstar.”
Stern’s compulsions—his fascination with farting, body parts, and some Platonic dream of nympho lesbians—are at trash’s root. White-trash behavior is defined by childlikeness and the headlong pursuit of easy gratification—quite often, sex. Feral child Amy Fisher said of Joey Buttafuoco that he introduced her to “expensive restaurants and cheap motels.” Joey had some difficulties getting to the motel all the time, so Amy shot his wife.
Courtney Love’s dark roots and dirty baby-doll dresses are as sophisticated an appropriation of the childlike white-trash aesthetic as was the Rolling Stones’ homage to black urban style; Love’s delight in looking like “a 14-year-old battered rape victim,” a “kinderwhore,” is a nutshell of white-trash chic. So, too, are the suggestively named Tease-brand baby-doll T-shirts, which evoke a Lolita-at-the-Dairy-Queen thing. (Real-life Lolita Bridget Hall, the 16-year-old model with an eighth-grade education from Farmers Branch, Texas, stayed with Ford Models head Eileen Ford when she came to New York but refused to eat her chili because it didn’t come from a can.) The slumming well-to-do believe that by affecting trash poses they are tapping into authentic despair and alienation, just as certainly as if they had styled a beret and black turtleneck in the fifties.
“The form of trash is attractive,” writer Dorothy Allison says, “but the content is not. Americans are into form without content. True trash doesn’t care what happens, because we don’t believe our good behavior will get us anywhere. So we’re dangerous—we don’t necessarily care for your life.”
Tabloid-TV exposure can lobotomize the shame of white-trash behavior, but it can’t entirely create that behavior in the first place. So where did our rampant trashiness spring from? Liberals and slackers subscribe to the backlash-against-eighties-excess theory. “With The Cosby Show they were all doctors and lawyers going off to Princeton and walking around the house with $1,000 outfits,” says Mike Judge, creator and voice of MTV’s Beavis and Bull-head. “All through the eighties I thought there were way too many good-looking people on TV—you just start feeling inadequate. I thought it would be cool to have something on TV where you don’t have to be ashamed that you live in a dumpy house and wear dumpy clothes and watch too much TV.Along with Married … With Children and The Simpsons there’s a power-to-the-lower-income-white-people trend.”
Then there is the abdication-of-leadership theory, especially favored by Republicans (despite their party’s near-stranglehold on the White House). Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, once said that “with two generations of prosperity white trash looks like gentry.” Perhaps the reverse also obtains: With two generations of inertial guidance, gentry looks like white trash. “This form of [trashy] behavior is much more prevalent among the bohemians and the hippies, the upper-income groups in the Hamptons,” says Equal Time’s Mary Matalin. “It goes from the top down. Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald and all Max Perkins’s writers were total slugs—they all beat their wives and drank like fish and slept around.”
The conservative view is acute, though hyperbolic. When we abandoned teaching the core values of Western civilization, Allan Bloom argues in The Closing of the American Mind, we lost our common mores: “Civilization has seemingly led us around full circle, back to the state of nature… .” As Ashley Judd muses in the 1993 movie Ruby in Paradise, “Why slave your life out when you can just take? Are there any real reasons for living right, anyway?”
The presenting symptom of our social decline, believes scholar Charles Murray, is white illegitimacy. He unscrolls a dismal statistical litany: In 1991, 22 percent of white births were illegitimate; 69 percent of those single white mothers had family incomes under $20,000; and 82 percent of them had a high-school education or less.
An additional stress is rising divorce rates: Of white children born in 1980, only 30 percent will live with both parents through the age of 18; those born in 1950 had an 81 percent chance. Families under the poverty line are twice as likely as other families to undergo parental separations, and various studies show that single-parent children are two to three times as likely to have emotional and behavioral problems.
“If the dominant culture deems you a misfit if you drop out, then you plug away,” Murray says. “If there is an alternative culture that says, ‘Who needs that shit?,’ then dropping out becomes an option. And that alternative culture is the black underclass.” Of the popular neologism wigger, Murray notes, “It refers to white kids who mimic black dress, walk, or attitudes. But what they’re really imitating is black-underclass attitudes toward achievement. When a large number of males grow up without fathers, then they emulate the local heroes—the drug dealers, who get lots of women, have money, and take no crap.”
This argument—that black-underclass problems resonate in the white underclass—has had a fierce political valence since at least 1965 (the year of Moynihan’s controversial report to President Johnson, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” which prefigured Murray). Liberals take obscure comfort from the suggestion, often made by Jesse Jackson and scholar Andrew Hacker, that all races share despair: They find talking about the white underclass a pressure-release valve from coded discussions of the black underclass.
Conservatives, on the other hand, are horrified. “Unless these exploding social pathologies are reversed,” William J. Bennett warns in Nostradamian tones about drug use, violent crime, and illegitimacy in his best-selling The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, “they will lead to the decline and perhaps even the fall of the American republic.”
Parents, especially fathers, are supposed to prevent us—if not the putatively fragile republic—from falling prey to our impulses. To stop us from acting like children. Kimberly Mays, who last year won a court ruling allowing her to sever ties with her biological parents and remain with her adopted father, this year switched back to her original parents, Ernest and Regina Twigg. The reason, according to one of Kimberly’s friends, was her adoptive father Robert Mays’s hard line: “She hated him because he wouldn’t let her stay out late with her boyfriend.”
Fittingly, both Beavis and Butt-head “have single mothers, we’ve decided,” says Mike Judge. “They’re from some town like Channelview, Texas, where everyone’s parents are welders or work in a big yard where they store pipes. If they had a dad around, there’d be more supervision and they probably wouldn’t get away with as much.”
The boom in trash behavior clearly owes less to Marx than to Freud, less to the resolution of class dialectics than to simple indulgence of the id. There is, in short, much to be said for repression. “The Zeitgeist of the twentieth century is to throw off the artificial restraints of civilization and etiquette, to express yourself and not control your feelings,” says Judith Martin, better known as “Miss Manners.” “It’s a pop misreading of Freud, and I abhor it. The moral results are that if you don’t like someone you shoot them, or smash their car, or, if you insist on being law-abiding, sue them over small matters.”
The ultimate restraining figure, of course, is the jealous God who has loomed over the American landscape since preacher Jonathan Edwards’s early warning that “all children are by nature children of wrath, and are in danger of eternal damnation in hell.” White-trash behavior comes not just from the absence of stern parents but from the masses skipping Masses, from all those going cold turkey on religious opiates.
Consider the falls of evangelists Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and, most recently, Arkansas’s Tony Alamo, convicted of tax evasion and of having wed eight of his followers within the past eighteen months. Jessica Hahn was once a devout Pentecostal, and Roseanne Arnold’s father sold 3-D pictures of Jesus door-to-door. Paula Corbin Jones had daily prayer sessions growing up in Arkansas. Of her mother’s Bible Missionary sect, Charlotte Corbin Brown says, “They don’t wear makeup, no wedding rings, jewelry, no pants for women, no shorts, clothing below the elbows and knees, no movies and no TV—Mama wouldn’t even watch Paula on TV now.”
“Miz Corbin is so religious it would embarrass Paula,” Mark Brown says. “So Paula went away from all religious-type things. She went away fast.”
White-trash behavior is neither a delightful plastic flamingo on the front lawn of American culture nor a glimpse of existential freedom. As Mike Judge says of his own creations, “Beavis and Butt-head are funny from a distance, but I wouldn’t want them around a lot. If these two guys came into a restaurant, you’d be thinking, I hope they don’t sit over here.”
“So we’re dangerous,” says Dorothy Allison. “We don’t necessarily care for your life.”
True trash is unsocialized and violent. “[They] are obvious losers and it bugs them,” Hunter Thompson has written of the Hell’s Angels. “But instead of submitting quietly to their collective fate, they have made it the basis of a full-time social vendetta. They don’t expect to win anything, but on the other hand, they have nothing to lose.”
An even more damaged trash response than being chubby and riding without a helmet is serial killings, which are almost exclusively committed by white men between the ages of 25 and 40. More serial murders have been reported since 1970 than in all previous American history combined. The commercial response has been swift: There are five lines of serial-killer trading cards; Axl Rose sings Charles Manson songs and Spin has the cult leader on its cover; the late John Wayne Gacy’s paintings sell for up to $20,000. And Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and the ubiquitous Howard Stern have said that they could have easily responded to their childhoods by becoming serial killers.
White trash disproves the notion that we are all infinitely perfectable, that all that stands between us and felicity is a few hours of self-help. White trash is about scars that won’t heal. Twice in the past three months, John Wayne Bobbitt has been charged with battering his fiancée. Being unredeemable is “part of the Roseanne-and-Tom shit,” Dorothy Allison says. “They’re always going to be figures of contempt—there’s no reward for not acting trashy, so why shouldn’t they do what they want?” Both Roseanne and Tom say they were molested as children; Roseanne has alleged (improbably) that her father would “chase me with his excrement and try to put it on my head. He’d lie on the floor playing with himself. It was the most disgusting thing you can ever imagine.” Yes, pretty much. Courtney Love’s mother turned her in to the police when she shoplifted a Kiss T-shirt at the age of 12. And Tonya Harding’s vision of the future was also clouded early. She moved eight times as a child; her half-brother allegedly assaulted her; and her mother, LaVona, who was married five, six, or seven times, depending on who you believe, beat her with a hairbrush and called her “bitch” and “scum.”
The epithets also flew as Kenneth Lakeberg left a courthouse in Indiana last year after a probation hearing. The wife of a cousin Lakeberg had slashed with a butcher knife shouted at Lakeberg, among other things, “You’re nothing but scum.” Lakeberg is the unemployed welder whose wife gave birth to Siamese twins, and who became notorious after he blew the cash people had sent in to help pay for the risky operation to separate them. Lakeberg spent $8,000 of the contributions on a car, expensive meals, and $1,300-worth of cocaine.
He promised a judge he would quit drugs and reform. And the media did their part to help lick away his shame. His lawyer, Lloyd Remick, sought to sell the family’s ordeal as a movie of the week, and did succeed in peddling part of it to the National Enquirer, which trumpeted Angela’s survival of the operation: LITTLE MISS MIRACLE GETS HER FIRST HUG FROM MOMMY.
Alas, in June, when baby Angela succumbed to an infection, her father was in a drug-rehab center in West Lafayette, Indiana. His wife later had to bail him out of jail so that he could go to his daughter’s funeral. “Apparently, allegedly, Kenny borrowed a car from a friend, never returned it, and pawned it for drugs,” Lloyd Remick told me. “I don’t know what he’s up to, but the headline is TWINS’ DAD ARRESTED AGAIN.”
Had he done wrong taking the money? Lakeberg, a walking ad for No Excuses, never thought so. “We ate at nice places,” Lakeberg said of his spree. “We traveled good. I think we deserved at least that much.” True trash takes what it needs and claims it’s what it deserves. True trash is one long boiling tantrum, primed to explode. True trash is the terrible twos forever.
The culture is in a panic to find its collective inner child. Well, here he is.
Finding the Local Color
The words New York don’t naturally sidle up to the bar next to the words white trash, but neither is the Big Town a pure bastion of Euro-influenced cosmopolitanism. A guide to some local manifestations, self-conscious and otherwise, of down-home culture:
There city’s only trailer park, apparently, is Goethals Mobile Park on Staten Island (2701 Goethals Road North).
Lower East Side Wrestling Gym opens its doors for a monthly “exhibition” wrestling night (605 FDR Drive, at Houston Street). Doink the Clown, Damien Dementias, Johnny Gunn, Brutus the Barber Beefcake (Hulk Hogan’s brother), and friends face off for a hooting crowd.
NRA members and other gun funsters outfit themselves at Olinville Arms in the Bronx (3356, White Plains Road). There’s a shooting range downstairs. And, yes, they do carry the Fig semi-automatic pistol.
Tad’s Famous Steaks (119 West 42nd Street and four other locations). Good and good for you.
Madison Square Garden hosts the biannual U.S. Hot Rod Motorsports Extravaganza, featuring tractor pulls and monster trucks. The next one is tentatively scheduled for early ‘95. The annual New York International Motorcycle Show rolls into the Javits Center next February.
Hogs & Heifers saloon (859 Washington Street, in the meat-packing district). “I sell more Pabst Blue Ribbon than anybody,” boasts owner Allan Dell. A new treat: Jack Daniel’s on tap.
Diesel Only (100 North 6th Street, Brooklyn) puts out seven-inch singles of trucker music, or “Rig Rock.” The Williansburg-based record label distributes to truck stops nationwide and locally to Cajun-food establishments like the Great Jones Café and Two Boots.
TriBeCa hipsters slum at the Jim Jarmusch—ish Babydoll Lounge (34 White Street).