The Town Where Americans Still Write Checks, and Other Notes on Rural Economics
In the trailer just behind the post office, that’s how I tell people where to find me—and it’s often that I have to tell people where to find me. Addresses are no good here, though they function better for out-of-towners, like me, than for the locals. Hillsboro, West Virginia, where I live, only switched last year from using the old route model—numbered county highways—to street names, and to house numbers instead of boxes at the end of the road. The state decided to revamp the nomenclature of all its rural areas, worried that emergency services wouldn’t otherwise be able to find people in need.
What the state Department of Transportation didn’t consider is that many roads aren’t marked with signs, and many houses, like mine, don’t have visible numbers. When I got a flat tire and called AAA, the woman at the call center couldn’t find my location on the map, though I described it in detail, named the numbered route and cross street. The local mechanic she connected to called me back and asked if I lived locally. Yeah, I told him—I’m in that gas station parking lot just past the grocery store, near the fairgrounds—and he found me, no trouble at all. Despite living directly behind the post office, I can’t get mail here because there’s nowhere to direct it; instead, a numbered post office box is my most permanent claim on the world.
Last week I called the bank and ordered new checks, which I’d been meaning to do for months, because for the first time in my life I was running out. Of course, I couldn’t find the bank’s phone number; the only one I ever call is the 24-hour emergency line where I’ve reported missing debit cards an uncountable number of times. Only once, I think, was it really stolen.
But the checks, I’ve been giving them away since I moved here, marking the hand that takes each one after I sign, tucks it into a pocket or underneath the cash drawer. That’s how things are done. Afterwards, I check my bank account and wait for the image to appear, my signature crumpled and pixelated.
I moved to Hillsboro from New York City three months ago, and since then I haven’t misplaced my debit card once. Never mind that I still don’t have a wallet, still tuck my cash and cards into a zippered pocket in the lining of my bag, but I remove those cards so rarely that it’s impossible to lose them. With a population under 300, in a county of about 10,000 people, Hillsboro has no bank of its own, and the nearest one is a 15-mile drive away. Cell service is spotty enough in the Allegheny Mountains that most people have land lines—and consequently, there are very few credit card machines. This is true in many rural or poor parts of America, not to mention that the usage fees for credit card machines often make them a financial burden to small businesses, while people who don’t earn much are less likely to have bank accounts and debit cards, or the kind of credit score that allows them a charge card.
In the last few months I’ve read more than one article like this arguing that checks are so rarely used as to be obsolete. But the writers always live in cities with ATMs on every block. Out here, cash is rarely used because it’s so hard to find an ATM, and businesses often can’t make change: My waitress borrowed eight bucks from me the other day to give to a guy who had paid for his lunch with a $20, and I knew without a doubt that she’d pay me back.
Accepting a check—whether for the eight-and-change I spent at the post office, mailing a few packages, at the bookstore, or for the $364 that rent and utilities cost me last month (suck on that, New York friends)—means demonstrating a level of trust in the person who’s paying you. They’re good for the money. They’re giving you a document stamped with their account and routing numbers, and expecting you to take no more than what you’ve agreed on. When I write out a number on that little slip, it makes me accountable for the money I’m spending to myself as well. Despite the fact that I’m an AmeriCorps member right now, earning below the poverty line, I’m saving more than I ever have before, both because there’s less to buy and because it’s much harder for me to just swipe a card without thinking about it. That’s part of why I moved here—to make myself accountable, and not only for my money. I had a hard time taking space, in New York, to consider, to make choices that felt like choices. To take care of myself, which I wasn’t doing there.
Care, caution, making a life looks different here, and lives are more often made in making. Here, my friends and I joke often about what would happen in the event of an apocalypse, zombie or otherwise. And I can’t help but think that I’m in the best place to survive it, where wood stoves, hunting, and canning are a normal part of life. Where preparedness, not convenience, is expected. Where I know more than one person who’s taken an abandoned schoolhouse and turned it into a home, and what work they don’t do themselves they write a check for.
Diana Clarke lives in the trailer behind the post office, and maintains a second residence on the internet. Photo by the author.