Nonfiction from Kathryn Fitzpatrick

Photo: Andy Watkins

Raggies: A Natural History

“Mount Raggie is somewheres over beyond Salisbury. I met an old farmer up there…I was walkin’ along the road and I see this lad lookin’ at this pile of bones over in his pasture. ‘That there used to be a cow, mister,’ he says. ‘That’s all they left me.'”

– Ed Robertson, Thomaston, Connecticut, 1939

Cindy Garry’s been a teller at Torrington Savings Bank for fourteen years. She walks to work every day in slippers, carries her satin kitten heels and her Danielle Steel paperback and her cigarettes in a Stop & Shop bag she’s been saving on account of the plastic bag ban in Connecticut. She lives with her son and grandson on Center Street, in a two-bedroom apartment above Sawyer’s Bar, which she’s never been to ’cause the crowd is too trendy, and anyway, she goes to the packy twice a week after work for her fifth of Dubra, which Sawyer’s doesn’t keep on hand.

Sometimes Cindy yells at customers. When they enter the lobby shirtless or pull pints of Fireball out of their briefcases or ask too many dumb questions or loiter too long or want their cash back in small bills. Most customers at Torrington Savings Bank want small bills. Cindy yells at most customers.

Before, Cindy was a server at the Bertucci’s in Simsbury, in a plaza with an AMC and a Banana Republic and a Kiehl’s. She still pronounces bruschetta with the crunchy “c” because she thinks she’s classy, and she makes it every year for the office potluck for an excuse to pronounce it that way. But Cindy’s been wearing the same kerchief-hemmed dresses since ‘93, so when she whispers fuckin’ raggies after the lobby’s cleared out, it feels more like an acknowledgement than a slur.

Raggies live in northwest Connecticut, in the armpit between upstate New York and Massachusetts. If you drive around Torrington, down past Coe Park and the Cumberland Farms that always gets robbed, near the Knights of Columbus building with its monument for all the dead babies lost to abortions, you’ll see them walking. They snap cans of dip and spit into Dunkin’ cups, carry backpacks filled with liquor and dollar bills rolled up in a sock. They smell like motor oil or fried onions, the way a body smells when left to ripen for too long.

Think of the Melonheads of the Naugatuck River Valley, who, left to themselves, morphed into inbred cannibals and would gobble up anyone who went too deep into the woods. Think of the Satanic village outside of Lake Quassapaug, the miniature houses formed with cement and pebbles, built by a man who heard voices then killed his wife. Think of the spaceship deep under the waters of Bantam Lake, rising up among the cottages and spotted by a cop in the 90s. Think Bigfoot, cloaked by the Berkshire Hills.

Raggies are legendary, but not mythic. Like Halley’s Comet or a solar eclipse, raggies are the real deal; white trash boiled down to its most basic form. Find them in any Litchfield County town upward mobility passed over, where people keep piles of tires on front lawns, drape Don’t Tread on Me flags over their porches: Winsted, Torrington, Thomaston. They might work as nurses’ assistants or auto mechanics or grocery cart boys, and spend their wages on Joel Osteen DVDs and end-of-days meal prep.

The word raggie comes from Salisbury, Connecticut. Situated in the uppermost corner of the state, nowadays it’s filled with mansions and horse stables and helicopter pads, and the area around Mount Riga is the site of summer homes where New York hedge fund executives go to connect with nature. The homes are angular and white because it takes a lot of money to make a home look barren and cold. But in the early 1800s, Mount Riga was an iron mine, operated by immigrants from Latvia and Poland. They lived in log cabins built into the woods, played fiddles and did all the woodsy downhome things associated with people in deep Appalachia. Raggie is a bastardization of Riga.

The Appalachian Trail runs through this part of Connecticut; the people, forced out, are still poor. As the miners’ descendants moved south, the word changed with the people. Became loose, became harsh. It settled into places with mills and factories, with jobs for the unskilled or illiterate. When the factories went under, the people stayed and raggie took on new meaning as a catch-all for the white working-class. The ones that Connecticut, as it built up its shoreline and summer homes, left behind.

—§—

Patti’s Place in Thomaston is the place we work in high school. It’s a windowfront diner where they pay kids fifty bucks a week to peel and dice potatoes, wash dishes, mix a broken hollandaise. Each windowsill is cluttered with shit customers bring in: toy soldiers, framed pictures of somebody else’s grandchildren, broken turntables and plastic hamburgers and vintage McDonald’s Happy Meal toys. The regulars have been going there since it opened in the late 80s: Double Jerry, drinking his black coffee and shouting numbers into his newspaper; George Seabourne and Mike Burr, Thomaston elite who can afford to eat all their meals outside the home because they no longer have wives to cook for them. There’s a man who comes in every day for a birch beer and nothing else. He’s been doing that for twenty years. Nobody minds.

The guys at Patti’s always talk about raggies. “They gotta be Polish,” they say. “They’re only Polish.”

“What about the Leather Man?”

“Different entirely.

Some people think the Leather Man was the original raggie, some prophet sent to warn us of the slow end of days. He lived in the state park on the far edge of town, in Leather Man’s Cave, named on account of his living there.

Here’s how the legend goes: the Leather Man walked across Connecticut eleven times a year, carried a walking stick and a suitcase and an axe. Shop owners left scraps of fabric outside at night, food and water and blankets. He made his own clothes. From the soft squeak of the leather, they could hear him coming, the shopkeepers, and they’d make signs to hang in their windows that read, “The Leather Man Stopped Here.”

Some versions say he was a French shoemaker who followed his wife to New England only to find her dead upon his arrival. Some say he was the son of a leather merchant who squandered his money in pursuit of a woman.

We tell romantic stories. We pretend life is charming and bittersweet.

We go to Patti’s for gossip, for home fries griddled on a dirty flattop. We go there to figure out who’s moving into that empty storefront, the one that used to be Vi-Arms Restaurant, and then a tobacco shop. Patti knows. There’s this running joke that Patti is the mayor of Thomaston because she knows who’s having an affair or had kids out of wedlock, who just lost their job, whose son got busted most recently for narcotics possession. Once, she played the Mayor of Munchkinville in a community production of the Wizard of Oz, but that was years ago now, and anyway, the cardboard sets were nicer than downtown Thomaston, where everything is closed and we have to go out of town for groceries, for clothing, for Valentine’s bouquets, tampons and Benadryl and cans of cat food and printer ink.

To fill in the empty storefronts, the town put cardboard cutouts of Donald Trump and “Jesus Heals” signs in all the windows. Someone’s always chalking penises on the sidewalk. Someone’s always leaving stolen shopping carts in the neighbor’s backyard. It’s like a movie where some natural disaster is coming, fast, fast, and everyone’s trying to repent before the great flood.

—§—

I grew up with the word raggie bouncing off high school hallways. It was an everyday word, a recognition of mutual poverty, a sharp jab at circumstances that stuck us here like gum to a desk.

During Spirit Week, we had “Raggie Day.” We borrowed our fathers’ work clothes—overalls and plaid flannels—fashioned togas from leather scraps and potato sacks. Or we wore house dresses and gray wigs. We blacked out our teeth, wrapped water bottles in paper bags. We pretended to be garbage men and farmhands and out-of-work laborers and pregnant housewives. Churchgoers, waiting for tithe to pay off.

I went as my mother, a waitress. A third-generation resident of town who dropped out of college ’cause money was good at the restaurant until it wasn’t. She’s worked at many restaurants. Each a fine dining place with a wine list and a small fork for salad. Each far away, like she doesn’t want people to know what she’s doing. The last one she quit ’cause she was the oldest staff member. “I don’t want people thinking I’m not going anywhere in life,” she says. “No one wants to be oldest.”

She’s always pissed when I describe us as raggies, always brings up the fact that I never had to take the bus to school.

She says, “I was a good mother.”

She says, “I did the best I could.”

There are raggies and there are raggies; those who’ve settled comfortably into the lifestyle like a body in bed, and those who fight it, who deny it, who spend their life savings on nice cars and oriental rugs and beautiful, landscaped front lawns.

This is the truth: Litchfield County is dying. It loses people every year, to lung cancer, to job opportunities in other states. It is hemorrhaging people like blood. There is nearly nothing left worth staying for.

Cindy Garry makes $14.75 an hour. She is sixty-seven. She will work till she dies.

My mother used her divorce settlement to buy another house in Thomaston; we’ve lived here forever. It is the fifth house she’s purchased in town, each slightly smaller than its predecessor.

Once at a bus stop, I spoke with a woman from Hartford. I said I was from Thomaston, near Torrington, and she told me I lived on the edge of civilization.

Once, I asked my mother about Thomaston. I said, “Why stay?”

She said, “Where do you expect me to go?”
.

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Kathryn Fitzpatrick is a 2nd year MFA student at the University of Alabama with works published or forthcoming in Hippocampus, Out Magazine, Gravel, and elsewhere. She lives in Thomaston, CT.

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