Rust Belt Respect 

By Dan Denton

A few years ago, Nordstrom’s, defined by Wikipedia as a “luxury department chain,” got roasted for selling muddy jeans. The brand new jeans came with pre-splattered mud, and the low price of $425, about the same as the weekly take home pay from a $15 an hour job. $425 to look like you’d spent a 10 hour shift wrestling steers in a pasture. 

There are still versions out there, amongst a limitless variety of distressed blue jean styles. There are thousands of fashionistas and fashionable alike, that are wearing Carhartt hats and work gear, and thousands more wearing $300 work boots that’ll never see any work. Trucker hats and flannel shirts are standard hipster gear, and who really gives a fuck? As long as you don’t go too ridiculous, like splattering fake mud on yourself, no one. 

And I don’t give a fuck much either. I live my day to day life by the “sleeves or no sleeves” method. As in, do I have to go anywhere important today? No? Then, I wear a sleeveless T shirt. Tonight I’ve got a birthday dinner for a friend. It’s at a decent restaurant. I’ll wear a T shirt that still has sleeves. Keep it simple. Keep it comfortable. Cargo shorts when it’s warm, Levi jeans when it’s not. I know who I am. A middle aged blue collar writer, and if I’m going to impress someone I better give them a poem, because they’re not going to fall in love with my style. 

I will however judge the ridiculous. Like years ago when I dated a radio DJ that helped host many community fundraisers. One of those was an annual “western ball” and the two years I got to attend were full of the funniest looking rich people cosplaying cowboys and cowgirls. And friends, there are few things more ridiculous than a Toledo millionaire, living in a suburban mansion complete with high priced landscaper, trying to pose as a rancher. It was fucking hilarious. 

But even in the ridiculous, I’ll keep it to myself. As long as you’re not being an asshole to anyone else, I don’t give a single fuck how you dress. Buy the muddy jeans. Wear the PBR trucker hat to the fancy steakhouse. Buy a closet full of shiny work boots to wear out on Friday nights. Be good to others and I’ll smoke one with ya, and I’ll be good too. 

But after all the years I’ve spent sweating in rusting factories, and all the years I’ve spent driving past abandoned factories and competing with those abandoned factory workers for jobs that pay less and are harder and harder to find, and after all the years I’ve spent carrying paperbacks in the back pocket of my beat up, grease stained work jeans, there’s one thing I can not abide: academic and white collar artists that masquerade as the Rust Belt. 

How many more academic and scholarly publications are going to print rust belt magazines and gritty anthologies full of writers that have lived and worked amongst the rust, but never once stepped in it? How many more universities will feature Rust Belt speakers and symposiums full of those that have driven past the rust, but never had to eat it for breakfast, or suffer the indigestion it brings that keeps you up at night, worrying about your factory job being cut and moved to Mexico? How much longer will they force the blue collar and the minority and the impoverished and drug addicted voices confined to the platforms of the independent and the underground? 

You can blame my intolerance on any number of things. Blame it on the food stamp-food bank, Rust Belt childhood. Blame it on the Rust Belt addictions, and blue collar beer cans and street corner liquor that nearly drowned me in my youth. Blame it on poverty and Rust Belt trauma for robbing me of the ability to go to college or make other good decisions. Blame it on bitterness, from all those hundreds of factory shifts, when I had poems and stories burning my heart to tears, hoping I could remember to write them down when I got home. 

Blame it on whatever you want to. Call it irrational, intolerant and unreasonable. Call it a line in the sand, and a hill I’m willing to die on. If you own more neck ties than callouses then you should call yourself Midwestern, because what could you possibly know about the goddamned rust of the Rust Belt? If you own more purses than you’ve had payday loans in life, then it’s perfectly ok to just be from Ohio. An Ohioan is a fine and honorable thing to be. But maybe don’t appropriate the rusting hope that’s eating the community you see over there on the other side of the tracks. The one you lock the doors in your car when you drive through it. 

You can be pretty much whatever you want to be in this world. I’ve dedicated much of my life to working with activists and support groups to make sure we all get a more equal opportunity to freely be ourselves. But this one thing is personal to me. Your college degree and success as an artist in the middle of this decaying Rust Belt of the middle west should be lauded and praised and celebrated. As I wrote to a close Midwestern writer friend recently, one with an academic and far more accomplished writing career than mine, writing a poem is worth a toast. Getting one published is worth a celebration. We should all celebrate art as hard as we can in the Midwest. Few places need art more. But if the words “manufacturing,” “factory,” or “steel” aren’t on your résumé, maybe consider leaving the word “rust” off of it, too. That’s one of those words you can either earn, or spend $400 on rusty blue jeans that I’m sure would be a hit everywhere, except for with the men and women like me that wear blue jeans as a necessity instead of a fashion choice. 

It don’t mean I don’t love you all. We need all the art we can get, from all the voices that will bring it. All of them. It don’t mean I don’t love John Lennon, author of the song “Working Class Hero.”  It don’t mean I don’t love William Carlos Williams, but he was a doctor. And sure, his red wheelbarrow had plenty of rust. But Phillip Levine knew what work was, man, and his poems still bring tears to my work worn heart. It’s not that I don’t love Bruce Springsteen, but have you ever heard of Don Duprie? Doop from Doop and the Inside Outlaws? My buddy Doop is a Rust Belt artist that works next to the world’s largest steel blast furnaces in the world, and has watched his town rust as those furnaces idled. Doop, a long time firefighter, has written some of the best working class anthems of our generation, many of which have been covered by artists that are all over our playlists. If you wouldn’t feel at home with a Don Duprie song, then maybe go easy on using rust as a label. That’s all I’m saying. Show the rust in the Rust Belt a little respect. 

You don’t have to care what I think. I’ll keep it to myself most of the time, because I’m ate up with trying to figure out how to get by in my own damned life. But every once in a while I’ll poke fun of the holes in your jeans, like every other Midwestern Dad, and maybe I’ll take a crack in the dark now and again at the underlying elitist aura that sometimes comes from not opening up our art circles to more voices. 

After all, we all die somewhere. I might as well go here, in my Redwing American made boots. They’re five years old and tougher than most poets on their best day. And that’s ok. Not every poem should be work boot tough. Office workers, middle managers and neck tie wearers everywhere need poems, too, and I’ll be damned if I give them any.

Dan Denton is a lifelong factory worker and former UAW Chief Steward turned full-time writer. His latest book is available from Gutter Snob Books. 


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