TAKE A MOMENT to recall the kids you rode the bus with to school. Now try imagining what became of them. You probably see your old classmates living healthy, productive, fully formed lives.
Nicholas Kristof likely had the same hope when he traced down the paths of the old gang who rode with him on the No. 6 bus in Yamhill, Ore., in the mid-1970s, but it was not to be. As he describes it, his pals’ futures were quickly dashed by disorder, dysfunction, despair and danger—a new defining ethos for working-class lives.
The fates of Yamhill’s lost generation anchors Kristof’s and wife Sheryl WuDunn’s new book, “Tightrope.” WuDunn is not native to Yamhill, but she saw with her husband that the Yamhill citizenry’s struggle best illustrates the plight of those on the bottom rungs. Low-wage earners walk a fine line in life; if they stumble due to job loss, legal troubles, health issues or personal vices, there is little-to-no safety net to catch them when they fall.
This exploration can be painful to read. The authors do an excellent job of showing how Nick’s Yamhill friends, once full of promise and vigor, follow destructive paths not necessarily of their own choosing. The end result: substance abuse, obesity, broken families, violence and early death.
Kristof and WuDunn aren’t trying to whitewash Yamhill’s blues; they acknowledge most if not all of Nick’s classmates used free will to make bad choices. But they preface these tales of woe with the hardly ideal conditions these then-fragile boys and girls confronted. If job training, social services, family counseling, after-school programs and other community assistance aren’t available for those in dire need, why should we expect great life outcomes?
It’s not all somber. Kristof and WuDunn introduce the reader to individuals and groups who fill some of the gaps in the safety net in their communities, so there is hope. But they argue it’s going to take both private initiatives and governmental support, as the authors write, “to fix escalators and create more of them to spread opportunity, restore people’s dignity and spark their ingenuity.”
If this can’t be done, the authors argue, we shouldn’t be surprised if we find ourselves humming a Bruce Springsteen tune should we revisit our old haunts:
“Troubled times had come to My Hometown ...”
Jeff Schulze is sports content editor at The Free Lance–Star.