Like Most of America
Published on August 6, 2012 by guest author: Adam Rust

In the summer of 1994, I lived in a 1940s one-bedroom apartment in Columbia, Missouri. It had a front porch with a chair swing. I never saw the other three housemates, maybe because I parked in back and they parked on the street. It cost $265 and I never met my landlord. It did not have an AC but it had a claw foot tub and hardwood floors. It was a coveted place to live among my graduate school friends.

In May and June, I suffered through the unbearable heat of mid-Missouri. You have to understand that Missouri is a place with only two seasons. Spring and fall both last for about one month. The air is charged. At night I would lie in my bed sweating, listening to the heat lightning in the charged but silent atmosphere. It was still. Even though I put my bed in the cross-draft of two windows, there was no wind.

I stayed in town that summer because I had no better option. I needed to be somewhere else. I had classmates in Cedar Falls, in Saginaw, in Hays (Kansas) and Jasper (Indiana). We were living through a unique lens. We wanted to go where the pictures were. Usually that meant going to a place where there was so little in the way of news that the editors were glad to fill their pages with pictures of county fairs and profiles of local pastors. No news meant there was plenty of time to work on picture stories. This was the early 90s. My classmates from college were embarking on careers in New York at precisely the nadir of the stock market. Many would become millionaires merely by being in the right place at the right time. Did they see the future of internet bubbles and real estate bubbles? I did not. I saw a bright future with a camera and only as many possessions as I could fit into my four-door Saturn.

I was a beginning photography student. I had a portfolio – the defining measure of any student – and it consisted of my best work over eight months. I had a photo illustration of salsa, some great landscapes from Atlantic Canada, and a convoluted collection of pictures of the Latino family that lived below me in my old apartment. I mentioned that my friends made it to Jasper, Indiana and Hays, Kansas. I think I realized that an internship was not in the cards when I was turned down by the Mason City (Iowa) Globe-Gazette.

Given that my prospects were suddenly limited to living at home, returning to my college turf in D.C., or taking classes over the summer, I enrolled in Basic Press Photography and Mass Media Research Methods. The latter consisted of being told about regression, but without using any computer software. But the former meant taking the most meaningful class in the entire photojournalism sequence. It meant working every day to make pictures for the Columbia Missourian. Since 1908, the Missourian has been staffed entirely by students, albeit with editorial supervision by a group of professors and Ph.D. candidates.

My apartment was two blocks from “Liquor, Guns, and Ammo.” Liquor, Guns and Ammo sold liquor, guns and ammo. It was open well past midnight.

Finding news in mid-Missouri is not the same as reporting inside the Beltway.

By my third week, I had been to a rodeo in Auxvasse, Missouri, to county fairs in Boone and Pettis counties, preliminary tryouts for the US Summer Olympic team and also the entirety of the Senior Show-Me State games, the primary campaign for the fall’s City Council election, and an auction of livestock. We shot about ten rolls of black-and-white film every day. I had left Washington, D.C., to photograph seniors from Boone County competing in doubles tennis. I think most of us felt it was a miracle that someone was giving us unlimited amounts of free Tri-X pan. I had arrived.

When we were not making pictures, we were talking about pictures: my assignments today, how Josef Koudelka framed his pictures, how the Albuquerque Tribune used long-form essays. How and why were very significant. It was graduate school and not merely a job. There was no beginning and ending.

Thus, I talked at length of how I chose to photograph the one-car accident on Brown Station Road involving three port-a-potties. “I decided it was not just an accident,” I told my friend, “but a comment on the entire landscape. I wanted to show the beauty of the place. I put on a red filter so the clouds would pop and then I fill-flashed the spill. Kind of an Alex Webb approach, I guess.”

To many of us, this was a chance to tip toe into a new culture.

I have been reading a book that discusses the widespread cultural segregation of our society along lines of intellectual differentiation. The author of “Coming Apart” is Charles Murray, who wrote a very controversial book about IQ in the 80s but is now pulling back to look at the widening gap in social ties across classes. I see truth in one of his main ideas, which is that our elites no longer gain much exposure to the typical experiences of mainstream America, and that if they did, they would probably make decisions about them with a different perspective.

It is easy to become blind to status. Murray mentions that 92 percent of America lives in a neighborhood where fewer than half of the adults have a college degree. I live on a street where every adult has a college degree and all but a handful have more advanced degrees. If you live on a street with more than one Ph.D., you live in a bubble.  I generally don’t see things from the same viewpoint as Laura Bush, but her comment about the “chattering classes” reflected one truth – that the people who make up our political class are distinct from the broader spectrum of our citizenry. Part of this trend is that people spend their entire lives cocooned in a fishbowl from childhood all the way through to the point when they settle into a home as adults.

Being a journalist means confronting that contradiction. Some years later, I made friends with a reporter who later returned to his home state of Wisconsin to cover politics. Graeme had grown up on a farm but now he was a widely read media figure. I think he felt the divergent dynamic of his life experience. In a column about his experience covering elections on the national media bus in Wisconsin farm country, he wrote:

"My feeling about the growing social distance was reinforced most personally during the tour of Wisconsin by the national press. I traveled with the Howard Dean camp, and there saw again how the elite media outlets employ people who, when they dip into smaller places away from DuPont Circle in Washington or the Lower East Side in New York, treat it as some sort of anthropological adventure."

He recalled that several reporters had to ask how to spell Schlitz.

Many of us were those kinds of people. I was never given ballet or violin lessons as a child, but I did take the SATs three times.  Of course we were not that unusual. It is very possible, in today’s world, to live a life without exposure to the life of most of America. By the way, it doesn’t count as legitimate exposure if you met the underclass only because you volunteered at a place like a soup kitchen or with Habitat for Humanity and then later used it to serve as a credential for some kind of application. Moreover, the level of segregation hardly has to be as defining as mixing with the truly poor. Today, many people never even mix with the culture of upstanding small-town America. Even spending a legitimate amount of time with the working class separates many of us from the sheltered elite.

Those criteria are from a test that Murray puts to his readers. If you read the book, he would challenge you to put an identity to the name Jimmie Johnson, to recall if you have eaten at a Western Sizzlin’ in the last year, if you have friends that are active evangelical Christians, or if you have deliberately chosen to socialize with people that smoked in your preference in the last month.

I think it is interesting that he avoids any question related to housing choice. I think housing is very telling. Indeed, it is a good sign that a marriage will last if the couple rent similar apartments. In my life, I have had an opportunity to visit the inside of many mobile homes. I think that among my peers this is a relatively unique experience.  In my state, one in six families lives in a mobile home.  
These experiences seem normal to most of America, but completely foreign to the people that will later create most of the content for our national media.  Working at a newspaper in the middle of Missouri brought me out of that tunnel. I was not alone. Our group consisted mainly of young migrants from San Francisco, Taiwan, New York, D.C., Seattle, and Chicago. A few were from places like Memphis or St. Louis, but they were the exception. I cannot remember anyone from a legitimately rural area or even from a small town – save for those that came directly from university.

The things I took from journalism began during that summer at the Missourian. I know that it changed me and I believe it was for the better.

My story is really about that summer and principally about one defining mistake. We did get together regularly. On this evening, I left the darkroom with my friends at approximately 8:30. My skin was saturated with fixer and Dektol. Fixer gives off an awful smell. It fits that a large plant in North New Jersey makes fixer – it is probably too noxious for states that want to protect their water supply. 8:30  is kind of late for most people but working 12-hour days was par for the course. Needless to say, we didn’t go back and work on regressions for Mass Media Research Methods.  

We agreed to meet at my house for a movie. Some people do not remember what this entailed back then, so let’s review: You had to drive to a store and get there before it closed. The clerk made it clear that I needed to work quickly. “We close in 8 minutes,” he said. Today, if you download a film you can make your choice among the group, but back then you had to hedge your bets with several choices. The store rented tapes – not blu-ray DVDs – and the late fees started in 27 hours. I picked up a few bratwurst on the way back.

People began to arrive by 9:30. I had a grill in my back yard. We ate before the movie. When we did sit down, I took off my hiking boots. My feet ached. They probably didn’t smell great, either.

My feet attracted attention.

“Oh my God,” said Sarah, “your feet are disgusting.”

Sarah was a driven individual with an outspoken way. She was wearing Doc Martens and her hands were holding a 48 ounce big gulp cup which she carried with her to drink coffee.

“Yecch. Disgusting. I can’t believe you don’t cut your stupid toe nails!”

I had some real daggers down there.

“I refuse to sit near you,” she said. “No, I change my mind. I refuse to let you sit near me.”

Having bad toe nails flouts some of the basic rules. No one made me have bad toe nails. I made that choice myself, every day, when I put myself together in the morning. But in an era when grooming has no real limit, we all draw the line somewhere.  If it is not with toe nails, then perhaps with toe nail polish or those pesky hairs behind your ears.  But toe nails are a basic.

Flouting is a counter-class phenomenon. At the Episcopal Church in Chapel Hill, the minister performs communion in open-toe sandals to adults wearing jean shorts. Jeans of any kind would not pass muster in some of the Evangelical churches that exist outside of the elites that I mentioned earlier. I grew up going to school in a coat and tie. I never touched an iron and we usually wore duck boots.

“Why don’t you just cut them,” said Thorne. “Come on, bud. It isn’t that hard.”

I did have nail clippers in my dopp kit. I had asked myself the same question. But it always came down to the same thing.

“Who has the time?” I said. “I’m always working.”

“What?” said Sarah. She was laughing now. They were all laughing. This was not going to just go away.

It was then that Thorne and Reggie picked me up.

“Hey,” I said, “what’s going on?”

“What is going on,” said Sarah, “is that you are going to go outside and not come back in until you have dealt with your disgusting feet.”

They pushed me out the door and onto my back porch. It was dark and the stars were out. Inside, my lights were on. I looked through the window. They were looking in my refrigerator for dessert.

Reggie threw the nail clippers out the door. “Here,” he said, “just get it over with.”

I complied. I cut my toenails. Perhaps I cut a bit more, too. I think it was part of the whole process of that summer. With those nails and with many of those assignments, I cut away from some of my disengagement with the rest of the world around me.

Today my nails are better kept but they still bear the scars of a tough life. In 1996, I ran a marathon in Chicago in the fall. Before the race was over, I cracked both of my big toe nails. One recovered recently, but the other still has problems. However, I do make the time to trim them. I trim them like most of America, in fact.

Adam Rust lives is a father and husband who lives in Durham, N.C. He also blogs at

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