By Michael Carroll
'No men," the man from New Jersey told my 93-year-old cousin. "No men will be living here."
He had bought the house next door to where she had lived all her life, but he had no intention of living in it.
Houses in anthracite coal region towns are reasonable. Reasonable is a softer word for cheap. My mother's Mount Carmel house - the house where I grew up - sold for $23,000 a decade ago. We might be lucky to sell it at all now.
The century-old wooden frame houses, mostly twins and rows, once sheltered generations of large mining families. Now many of them hold one elderly widow. When she dies or moves into the senior citizen midrise, the house often goes empty. Into the vacuum sometimes steps a Jersey guy who hopes to make money by renting dreams to people who are sometimes fleeing violent city streets and violent men.
The Jersey guy rented the house next door to two women and their four kids. My cousin was disappointed that the absentee owner was not moving in. She was also a little annoyed because she thought he talked to her like a child. Did he think she had never heard of women living together?
I remember my cousin being there on the sunny chaotic day of my mother's funeral on Sept. 11, 2001. They had gone through 12 years of school together. Mom left to work in Philadelphia, and then returned to Mount Carmel after the war, to marriage, kids, and more work. My cousin never left Mount Carmel, if you don't count the years in women's housing at Bloomsburg Normal School, less than 30 miles away. She then spent her life at the local high school, teaching girls typing, shorthand, and other skills to equip them to live independently until they married, or independently forever if they never did. She never married.
My cousin's older brother suffered from one of those awful degenerative, debilitating diseases that strike down young adults and cling to them until they die, usually no later than in middle age. After her parents passed on, she cared for him until he died.
I never heard her utter a bigoted word, either in hot anger or cold calm. She was one of those people who, when I was a young know it all, I searched for hidden flaws. I never found anything but kindness directed to the world and everybody in it.
I had heard the old family story of her bringing home from school the Chinese girl who had nowhere to go for the holidays. I remember more recently her clear, firm, condemnation of the killing of an immigrant in a neighboring coal-region town. She challenged the comforting denial held by some that recast the killing as some sort of fair, boys-will-be-boys fight that just happened to involve several locals and one Mexican.
Things have been changing in the coal region, and like many places in the country in these times, not always for the better.
An old friend a year ahead of me in high school just passed through Philly. He reported that the kids hanging on the street corners made our coal region hometown look like the meth (methamphetamine) capital of the county. He is a retired (laid off) newspaperman. His observations might be a bit harsh, even a little too pessimistic, but should not be ignored.
When I visited high school friends in town this spring, they warned against going by the house where my parents raised me. They said the neighborhood was more rundown and depressed than dangerous, and that local police were called there more than to other parts of town.
Tough economic times started in that economically depressed area in the 1950s, not in the crash of 2008. When I hear the presidential candidates talk about the grand plans and polices to turn the economy around, I think of Mount Carmel and I hope. I hope for that turn around and also hope that people are not allowed to slip off the edge while we work and wait for the better days.
My cousin's town - my hometown - is changing. Men from Jersey rent to women who live together without men. Women move to small coal region towns where rents are rock bottom and whole houses can often be had for less than the closing costs in city house sales.
I have not met the women next door. If I do, I will tell them how lucky they are to have such a neighbor.