One night at the Capitol Lounge, after I’d been in Washington for a few months, I found myself talking to an aide for a Northern congressman. He was sharing a fact he’d picked up in a meeting with a housing-coalition representative that day: “Trailers are not considered real housing, because they depreciate in value the minute they are dropped off the truck.”
Then he added, “Have you ever been in a trailer? They’re downright trashy.”
I let it slide. He didn’t know that I come from Tellico Plains, Tenn.—population 900, according to the last census. Many of my closest friends still live in Tellico Plains. And many of them live in trailers.
My friend Chris, for instance, spent more than three years living in a single-wide after college. He’s a high-school English teacher now, and his wife is a schoolteacher as well. He’s also an ordained preacher. With the money they saved living up on blocks, he and his wife are now homeowners at 26.
No one in my group at the Capitol Lounge, freely cracking trailer jokes, was even close to owning a home. They weren’t even able to take care of themselves. The Yankee socioeconomics expert ended the night puking on the floor. A self-proclaimed Southern belle kept talking about how frustrated she was because the guy she’d been hooking up with for two months still hadn’t taken her out to dinner. I went out to get cigarettes with a lobbyist for a fiscally conservative nonprofit; he put Marlboro Lights on his Visa.
You want to talk about trailer trash? Put down your Stella, turn off your Blackberry, and listen: You are trailer trash.
Just because your neighborhood is geographically broken down by blocks does not mean that you metaphorically don’t live up on them. Urban America is full of trailer parks. You just have fancier names for them.
Let’s stop by your studio apartment, shall we? You’re proud of the location, naturally. In Dupont Circle, on Capitol Hill, in Georgetown—so sophisticated! So many urbane attractions. Now let’s go inside.
Whoa! Almost tripped over your futon. Didn’t expect it to be so close to the doorway! It seems your futon is the center of your place. Sitting on it, you can reach over to the bed and fluff your pillows with one hand, while you pop a DVD into your entertainment center with the other. How convenient!
Of course, I caught you at a bad time. Normally when you’re expecting company, you put the room divider up to hide the bed from the “living room.” That’s about as concealing as hair in a can. In the kitchenette, you have a two-burner stove and a counter with just enough room to make a peanut-butter sandwich. Is there a dishwasher? I think not. We could go into your bathroom, but with the clothes hamper, there’s no room to move.
Your mini-estate, like a trailer, is simply the compromise you make to live on a lower income. And yours isn’t necessarily the nicer compromise. Climb up on the porch and I’ll take you inside a Tennessee trailer.
How about that! There’s a living room with enough space for a couch, love seat, and recliner. Stick your head in the kitchen—the separate kitchen—and you’ve got a four-grill stove and a counter big enough for preparing dinner parties. Still convinced your prison cell is nicer? Walk down the hall and see, not one, not two, but three bedrooms! Then to top it off, we have a bathroom that can hold a hamper, a magazine rack, and two people. If you want to upgrade, there’s room for a Jacuzzi.
On the inside, a well-kept trailer could hang with any nice apartment in the D.C. metro area. Step out the back door and…oh, look, it’s a yard.
Most efficiency apartments don’t even have a back door. But that’s not your real home, you say. You’re not planning on living there forever. You’ve just come to Washington to work for a politician or a nonprofit that stands for everything you believe in. The efficiency is just a steppingstone, a place to lay your head until you figure out where you want to go with your life and career. Or until you buy a condo in Arlington.
Welcome to Tellico Plains. My college-graduate friends, starting out in nursing, physical therapy, or factory work, were able to buy or inherit pieces of land. They just couldn’t build houses right away. So they bought trailers. Yes, their purchases depreciated fast. But not as fast as the $12,000 you threw away in rent last year.
Now, some of the folks I went to school with may spend the rest of their lives in trailers. They’ve got low-income jobs and no means to find better ones. They can build a house now, or they can guarantee that their children will always have clothes on their back and three meals a day. It is no different from an urban family living in a cramped apartment.
I have received an e-mail no less than 10 times titled “Tennessee’s Latest Lottery Winner.” It contains a picture of a trailer with a limousine parked out front. Like most jokes based on stereotypes, it has some truth behind it. Growing up, I saw my fair share of broken-down trailers with new Corvettes in the driveway or satellite dishes in the yard.
But for every trailer owner who blows a third of his modest paycheck on lotto tickets, there is a D.C. studio-dweller running up a $300 tab at McFadden’s or Café# Citron, then putting milk and bread on his credit card the next day. For every trailer with a brand-new, souped-up Ford F-150 in the driveway, there is a Washington efficiency with Brooks Brothers suits and a Burberry coat in the closet. And for every one of you who thinks a mobile home is the end of existence, trust me, there’s someone who’d take one look at your one-room wonder, shudder, and thank the stars for his comfortable double-wide. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Emily Flake.