That neighborhood was called Hampden, a place since immortalized in many of John Waters’s films. Back then, even in Baltimore’s often shoddy public schools, Hampden was not a place you wanted to admit you were from--my brother and I often lied when asked where we lived. There were police cars and ambulances on our street with some frequency, men passed out on the sidewalk. My father, a graduate student, once went outside with his pistol to check on a man whom he thought had been murdered near our house.
Even so, there was a strong community and the people who were able did their best to watch out for each other. These were good people, working people, but in the end that didn’t matter--their jobs had disappeared and they tumbled from the middle class into the ranks of what we now call the “working poor.” It was an early lesson into the way life worked for certain segments of our society.
Many years later, after a long and roundabout route to get into and eventually graduate from college, I ended up taking a job on Wall Street. I was proud of my new job, proud I’d gone from high school dropout to Cornell University graduate to Wall Street trader. Naturally, complications soon arose.
One surprising thing was that while in most of the country the closing of a factory was seen as tragic, on Wall Street it was nearly a cause for celebration. Whatever the company in question, closing an American factory caused their stock price to go up. The more jobs were outsourced, the more the company executives made on their stock options, the more investment bankers racked up multi-million dollar bonuses. Meanwhile, a short distance away, thousands of families were being devastated.
While I still have many close friends on Wall Street, after a few years there I knew it was the wrong path. I cared about people, I cared about their stories, I’d stopped caring about money. After leaving the bank I spent my time writing and working jobs in construction and as an EMT; I moved back in with my parents and lived in their basement. In 2005, I lucked into a writing scholarship at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas, where I wrote the majority of American Rust.
There are thousands of communities in which this book could have taken place, but Pittsburgh and the Monongahela Valley area, where I have many friends and family, seemed like the most natural setting. After thriving for a hundred years, helping to win our wars and build our great cities, the Mon Valley now offers a striking combination of rural beauty and industrial decay. Once the epitome of the American Dream--full of hard-working towns where you could make a name for yourself--the Valley today has the feel of a forgotten place.
This was the backdrop of the story I wanted to tell in American Rust--how events beyond our control can change the way we define our humanity. I think Americans are a tough people, but often our best doesn’t come out until we’re pushed our hardest. This is what I set out to do in the book. I wanted to examine the old American themes of the individual versus society, freedom versus determinism. I wanted to investigate what really makes us human.