Piney Mills may sound like a good enough place to live—one of those neighborhoods that offer a mixture of Cape Cods and ranches and the occasional bricked manor home, all with the stars and bars hanging from a pole, each with mats at the front door that say WELCOME. But it’s not like that at all. Piney Mills is instead a sprawling trailer court just outside of town that borders an expanse of national forest that is largely untrodden save for moonshiners, meth dealers, and love-struck teenagers in search of somewhere private to do some heavy petting.
In other words, every town has that one place where you don’t go unless you absolutely have to. For my town, Piney Mills is that one place.
It was a favor for a friend that took me there a couple weeks ago. He had a sofa that needed to be moved, I had the truck to move it. It was a minor errand that would take no more than an hour, but I still dreaded the trip. Piney Mills is an underbelly. When you go there, it’s best to prepare yourself for the things you’ll likely see—the poverty, the want, the neglect, yes. But mostly it’s the crass, profane attitudes the people there have adopted, either because of the sorry states of their lives or their bleak prospects of their futures.
I wasn’t disappointed in that regard. The decayed (and bullet-ridden, I might add) wooden PINEY MILLS sign at the entrance was guarded by a boy no older than six. He was dressed in jeans that were a size too short and a stained sweatshirt that read AUSTIN 3:16 SAYS I JUST KICKED YOUR ASS that was at least three sizes too big. As I pulled from pavement to gravel, he looked at me and offered a tiny middle finger.
I wound my way along the park’s main avenue. Trailers in various states of disrepair offered clues as to what the inhabitants considered important and not. I saw a bevy of duct-taped windows, porches littered with empty beer cases, and pristine satellite dishes clinging to sagging roofs. What few people that mingled about in the cold stared through dead eyes with a mix of resignation and distrust.
The guilt I felt wasn’t because my life had been offered more, but that I had to go to a place like that to be reminded of it.
The sofa in question was colored in a microfiber lime green and seemed to weigh as much as the truck that would transport it. My friend and I managed to hook it out of the narrow doorway and into the bed without causing further damage to either. He offered me coffee that I eagerly accepted. We spent the next half hour talking on his front stoop.
There is a rhythm to every place, even a place like Piney Mills. As the minutes wore on and the talk drifted from Christmas to work, the neighborhood awoke to a point where I was tolerated if not accepted. A woman across the street came outside long enough to wave and ask if we needed further help with the sofa. The man in the trailer beside us walked out to fetch his morning paper. He wore a threadbare purple bathrobe and nothing more. That didn’t stop him from noticing the errant newspaper that straddled the boundary between his trailer and the next, which he promptly delivered to an expectant and thankful elderly woman next door. Children appeared to play football in the street. For a while, even in that sad place, there was the sound of laughter and fun.
I realized then that I’d been missing something besides that appreciation for my life’s bounty. It was an important lesson, one I think is worth sharing here. It is simply that there is still joy in this world, still beauty. Still good. We might believe those things to be sparse and that might be true, but I don’t think so. Even in Piney Mills, that place the local police know well, you can find glimpses of our better selves. You can be reminded that while we are all fallen, dirty, incorrigible people, we are also capable of good and laughter.
I’m going to remember that the next time I turn on the television or pick up a newspaper. I’m going to hang on to that notion the next time my eyes are drawn heavenward and I’m tempted to say Come now, just come on and put an end to all this mess.
Because this world is still worth saving. It’s still worth our faith. It’s still worth living in.