Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Uncle Walrus vs. The Aspenites

When I was a kid, my mom had this picture on her office wall:

A caption below the picture (meant to be the words of the old rustic cowboy to the flashy “drugstore cowboy”) said: “I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy.”

That picture epitomizes a cultural disconnect that happens here in “The Valley”, and it goes beyond just the debate over who is or isn’t an authentic cowboy. The Valley encompasses a large part of Garfield, Pitkin, and Eagle counties… the areas east to west along I-70 and northwest to southeast along State Highway 82. In the west, along I-70, you have blue-collar towns like Parachute, Rifle, Silt, and New Castle. The further east you go on I-70, the wealthier the towns tend to get. Glenwood Springs is a middle-class town with upper-class aspirations. Still further east is Vail, a wealthy ski resort town. Southeast of Glenwood Springs on Highway 82 are Aspen and Snowmass, where movie stars and wealthy people from all over the world have summer or winter mansions. The Valley’s blue-collar workers—a mix of poor and lower middle class whites and Hispanics—commute over an hour every day to build those mansions. For twenty years, my dad was among them, until he started finding smaller projects to work on for his fellow church members in the Parachute area. When I was growing up, he did drywall work on mansions for Miami Vice’s Don Johnson, for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s financial advisor, and for a Saudi prince. It was common for my dad to come home with tales of seeing people like Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell walking around towns in the wealthy end of The Valley. Ask my dad about these people, and he will tell you that the only thing that drives them is outdoing their neighbors. It’s great job security for the blue-collar workers, because when one movie star builds a gigantic mansion, the neighbor across the street has to tear down their own mansion and build an even bigger one, just to compete. Once my dad had just finished putting the final touches of texture on the plaster in a wealthy man’s house. The house was built in some sort of avant-garde shape, and my dad overheard the house’s owner talking to himself,saying, “I do believe I’ve got something here that no one else has.”

The disconnect is both cultural and economic. Those who live in Aspen, Snowmass, and Vail are all called “Aspenites”. They are infamous for looking down on the blue-collar workers who commute so far to build their fancy homes and clean their houses. Here are the types of people that get labeled Aspenites: The wealthy, especially those who are not Colorado natives. Homosexuals, especially the flamboyant ones. People who buy organic groceries. Democrats. Movie stars. People who ride horses with English saddles while wearing jodhpurs. Skiers. People who watch soccer games on TV. People who drive compact cars. People who are against gun ownership. People who use canvas grocery bags. People who recycle. City folk.

What makes the blue-collar people living in the west end of The Valley different from the Aspenites? They shop at Wal-Mart, not because they like it, but because it's affordable. They watch Nascar, American football, or bull riding on TV. They drive pickup trucks, some old, some gigantic. Their hands have calluses. Their bodies are often overweight or falling apart. The artwork in their homes depicts quaint farm and cowboy scenes.

Now let me introduce my Uncle Walrus, a blue-collar worker from Silt:

His hat:

My brother and I call him Uncle Walrus because every year at Thanksgiving he eats SO much, and then stretches out on his back on the floor with his mountain of a belly rising and falling as he snores in a big post-turkey nap. His belly and mustache make him look like a walrus sunning itself on a beach. He is a retired Army man. He used to give Orange Clouds, my brother, and I coins from all the countries he had been stationed in: Somalia, Haiti, Germany, Panama, South Korea. He retired from the Army when I was eleven years old and came to live with us for a while. I remember that he used to spend his free time during that first year of retirement watching cooking shows on TV. He never cooked anything, he just watched the shows.

Uncle Walrus now works as a plumber. He’s worked for the same company for years and he makes good money doing it. Last week, he told us some of his work stories over Friday Night All-You-Can-Eat fried catfish at Vance Johnson’s Outlaw Ribbs. I stealthily turned my digital recorder on. I’ve transcribed my favorite tale he told to illustrate the way blue-collar workers perceive Aspenites. Background information: This is a story about a house in which Uncle Walrus is currently rennovating the plumbing. Imagine him telling it in his extremely laid back Oklahoma accent:

“This architect built his own house. He’s GAY. He’s got a boyfriend AND he’s MARRIED, and you see pictures of them all around the house with all THREE of them in the picture. And the housekeeper lives there, and I said, ‘You know, I feel sorry for the wife,’ and she goes, ‘Oh, SHE knew what she was gettin' into, don’t feel SORRY for her.’ She [the wife] just comes and stays on Christmas for a week. HE comes two or three or four times a year. She only comes once. He’s a huge architect, she’s a, uh, some kind of a fashion designer, and…it’s crazy. This house has got I don’t know how many rooms. There’s twelve bathrooms, and, uh, it’s a real weird design. It’s on the side of the mountain. It’s a cir..not really a circle driveway. You drive in and you can drive under the house. When you drive under there’s bedrooms above you, but over here on the ground level there’s nothing but the garage. And then… it’s just… he’s one of these that… all this WEIRD art. And I am NOT into WEIRD art. Like in one room it looks like they took tinfoil, like twenty feet… or… ten feet wide. And they just kind of krinkled it all up. Then they splashed some green paint on it, and they put a GLASS over it. And it’s weird, when the sun comes in it bounces off this one wall and turns that tinfoil pink. And…everything in the REST of the house… there’s a picture, like from that window to the other side of that window, and THAT tall, of an ALLIGATOR with whipped cream all over it…a LIVE alligator. And, you know, then there’s a picture of a bunch of Navy guys standin’ here in their dress white uniforms. They all got a real serious look on their faces, and, before I knew he was gay, I asked the housekeeper, I said, ‘What’s that all about?’ and she said, ‘Aw, it’s a GAY thing,’ and I said, ‘Whaddya mean GAY?’ and she goes, ‘You see the picture there of the three of them? Well, there you are.’”

See what I mean?

This clash of cultures is fascinating to me. I was raised by The Valley's blue-collar workers, but the life I've lived for the past eight years in Seattle makes me look more like an Aspenite in the making in my family's eyes. (You know, because I recycle and use canvas grocery bags.) I see the beauty and flaws in both worlds. I often feel the frustration of being stuck between them, though maybe that position is a gift. Maybe it makes me a cultural ambassador between the two.


  1. I just started a book on Postmodernism and one of the things that really struck me in the introduction was the concept that art and culture are very much formed by the past and by opposing viewpoints. It’s the idea that each successive wave, movement, settlement or generation rebels against the previous one; this reaction breeds fertile inspiration.

    I love that concept.

    As someone who recoils from any sort of conflict between people it helped me to consider that maybe conflict is good. Maybe it’s just what we need in the human stew of existence, lots of different ingredients to work with AND against each other to make a concoction containing the most possibilities.

  2. That's interesting, Min. I think that frustration and feeling of non-acceptance from people that are oppressed or descriminated against will always boil over into something. Sometimes art, sometimes violence.

    It's like taking dessert spices and adding them to meat or stew. Sometimes it works great, sometimes horribly, but it's all subjective, you know?

  3. It's awful that characteristics and actions of modern, progressive people are reviled just because they're typical of the pompous assholes of the east end of the valley. You're doing a good thing by letting them know that there's a difference between an Aspenite and a liberal, or a democrat, or someone who recycles.