“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 outlaw in Connecticut. She lives with her son and his son 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 for too long or want their cash back in too many 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 class, and she makes it every year at 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 the monument erected for all of 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 one-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 Melon Heads 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. Think Bigfoot, cloaked by the Berkshire Hills.
Raggies are legendary—but not the mythic stuff of legends. Like Halley’s Comet or a solar eclipse, raggies are the real deal, only white trash. Find them in any Litchfield County town that upward mobility passed over: Winsted, Torrington, Thomaston. Here, people keep piles of tires on front lawns, drape Gadsden flags over their porches. 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 feel a connection 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-forging mine, operated by immigrants from Latvia and Poland. They lived in log cabins built into the woods, played fiddles, and did all the woodsy, down-home things one might associate with people in deep Appalachia. This is the part of Connecticut the Appalachian Trail runs through; the people, forced out, are still poor.
“Raggie” is a bastardization of “Riga.” As 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 window-front diner where they pay kids fifty bucks a week to peel and dice potatoes, wash dishes, and mix a broken hollandaise. Each windowsill is cluttered by the 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, the 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 everyday for a birch beer and nothing else. He’s been doing that for twenty years. Nobody minds.
We go to Patti’s for the gossip, for the 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 who 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 Munchkinland in a community production of the Wizard of Oz, but that was years ago now, and anyway, the cardboard sets were a lot nicer than downtown Thomaston. Someone’s always drawing chalk penises on the sidewalk. Someone’s always leaving stolen shopping carts in the neighbor’s backyard. Everything here’s closed. We 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. It’s like a movie where some natural disaster is coming, fast, fast, and everyone’s trying to repent before the great flood.
The guys at Patti’s always talk about raggies.
“They gotta be Polish,” they say. “They’re only Polish.”
“What about the Leather Man?”
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, the shopkeepers could hear him 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.
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 all here like gum to a desk. There were sixty of us in the graduating class, just over three hundred in the school, and we all had plans to make it big, or at least move clear across the state, to a town with a McDonald’s or a strip mall.
There was this running joke among some of us, something like, “You know your life’s not that bad if you’re not walking across the bridge on Route 6.” That was the worst thing—to be a downtown walker marching up the highway toward the next town. Maybe we knew we’d all grow old here, and car ownership was the consolation prize that kept us hopeful.
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. Some of us wore house dresses and gray wigs. We blacked out our teeth, wrapped water bottles in paper bags. We were 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 the money was good at the restaurant. She was a fine arts student, who, for years, told stories of her degree, how much she learned about shading and watercolor technique. She listened to Talking Heads to seem cultured, wore dangling earrings and patterned sweaters to seem artsy. It was only years after I graduated high school, and later, dropped out of college myself, that I learned she had never finished. The restaurant she worked at closed. She moved home. She married a mailman who played in the local men’s basketball league and started a family and found a new waitressing gig.
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 and motorcycle accidents, 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 divorced my father years ago now because he couldn’t give her the life she anticipated. She 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 else do you expect me to go?”