Coming apart, circa 1977.
A Midwesterner coming of age in the 1970s probably did not grasp that society was slowly unraveling, though I suppose the signs were there for anyone who cared to look.
Our street was of the typical blue collar, working class variety, peopled by janitors, salesmen, mechanics, truck drivers, and housewives. Of America’s Four Founding Virtues, which sociologist Charles Murray discusses in his latest study, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, industriousness and honesty were common, while marriage and religion were on shakier ground. Was this because society had already begun to unravel, or was it simply the natural order of things?
There is little doubt that divorce was a fashionable feature of the times. While less than 20 percent of couples who married in 1950 divorced, half of couples who married in 1970 did. By the end of the decade, half the homes on our block had been visited by divorce. (Shacking up, however, remained taboo. Even the neighborhood’s obligatory hippie couple was married.)
Even then, marriages were not dissolved over trifles. The spouse who pulled the plug more often than not had been long suffering. Mr. H., we knew, was a chronic boozer. That was obvious even to us kids who witnessed him drive the family automobile through the front door of his house. Another neighbor, Mr. M., returned home from Vietnam with an Asian war bride. She was apparently only interested in a green card, and quickly decamped for parts unknown leaving behind a 2-year old daughter. A freshly divorced and obviously deranged Mrs. W. and her two small sons moved into the duplex next door for a brief time, while Mr. I., a wizened divorcé, and yet another drunkard, amused us kids with his ability to talk backwards.
As for religiosity, our street rested in the shadow of a Catholic church. And yet our family was the only one to attend services with any regularity — much to me and my brothers’ chagrin.
IF SPIRITUALITY AND healthy marriages were in short supply, industriousness was not. There were no slackers on our block. Even the drunkards had too much self-respect not to work. When Mr. L., an employee at the stove factory who walked with a pronounced limp, suddenly went on permanent disability in the early 1980s, my parents grumbled their disapproval. “What’s a little limp?” my mother said. “My grandfather lost his arm in a farming accident. Did that stop him from plowing and planting?” (I’ve seen faded photographs of the stern old gent, his one empty sleeve pinned up at the shoulder. He does not strike me as the sort of fellow who would be content to lay about the farmhouse and collect a government check.)
As for honesty and integrity (by which Murray means crime rates), there was very little to occupy the local gendarmes. Drugs were seldom seen. Doors were left unlocked at night and our parents had few worries on our account, at least till we got behind the wheel of a Dodge.
Murray notes that one of the boons of marriage is social capital. Marrieds are more likely to be joiners, coach little league teams, host the PTA. But if anyone on our block belonged to a civic organization it was a well kept secret. My father coached a little league team once and briefly served on the school board, but I do not think anyone else on our street could boast much in the way of community spirit.
Murray’s critics blame greed and the capitalist system for the decline of blue collar America. But the denizens of our block worked and lived within their modest means, and somehow managed to raise five and sometimes six children on an automobile mechanics income. They were thrifty, not because they were trendy back-to-the-earth types, but because it was routine and necessary. When times were tight, families helped each other out, and many were the times my folks relied on their parents and siblings to make the mortgage payment.
The one middle class couple on our street, Mr. and Mrs. C., owned a small printing shop on Main Street. Not only were they childless, but they despised children. My memories of them are of a dour couple sitting bolt upright in lawn chairs in their white gravel driveway every evening in absolute silence. Eventually, Mrs. H. hanged herself in her basement.
It was a good lesson for us kids. Wealth does not guarantee happiness. It is a lesson Murray’s critics have yet to learn.