On Watching Plain People


in Archive


At the Lancaster Heritage Museum I read a standard Amish school assignment that said, “As dead leaves ruin a lawn, so bad habits ruin a life.”  On the page there was a simple drawing of a tree with leaves falling to a lawn. Underneath the lawn the instructions read, “Write a bad habit on top of each leaf.” Three of the leaves on the ground had already been filled in with “Poor Grammar,” “Pride,” and “Carelessness,” all bad habits I could probably attribute to myself. I took a seat on a wooden school bench in the museum with the notebook of assignments and got to work on thinking about how I should fill in the rest of the ditto. I would definitely have to include “Aimlessness” on one leaf, “Compulsive Sarcasm” on another, as well as “Distrust of Authority” on a third.  I was proud of how quickly I could complete the assignment, and when I reached the top and had yet to run out of bad habits to mentally fill leaves in with, I decided I would definitely have to save the last leaf for a bad habit I was just about to fully embrace here in Amish country: “Voyeurism.”

Each year, four million tourists visit the 20,000 Amish who live in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and although the car rental agency had accidentally given me a new Mustang with GPS, satellite radio, and driver-side computerized lumbar support, I suspected that a several hundred-to-1 tourist-to-Amish-person ratio would ensure that the trip was uncomfortable.

At the Heritage Museum in Lancaster there was a piece of needlepoint displayed with a lock of an infant’s hair attached to it.

Another little lamb has
gone to dwell with him who goes
Another little dandy babe
Is sheltered in the grave

-Melinda Esh 1900

The Amish forbid photographic portraits, but this hanging seemed more intimate than a photo,  and I wondered how it ended up in the museum. I looked again at the lock of the baby’s hair and it was still curled in a little bundle.

I usually enjoy playing the trespassing voyeur, but even at the heritage museum I could tell that in Amish Country, trespassing and vouyering were not going to bring me as much joy as they usually did. From the exhibits, which were tastefully lit and displayed in a room that played a CD of German prayers to an Old Testament God, I gathered that if any group should be exempt from drive-by tourism, it is the Amish. They dress plain and don’t use electricity because they believe in simplicity, humility, and submitting to the law of God above all else. They traditionally use silence and avoidance to manage conflict and therefore avoid political and legal battles. That makes them vulnerable to the curiosity of the “English,” or modern people of Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, and D.C. I hadn’t been in the county long when I started to think that spying on the devout was a downer; I even found the description of their school system stifling.

Old Order Amish (including teachers) only go to school until the eighth grade because in the church’s view, higher education and abstract thought are not good for individuals or the society. On a wall in the museum hung one blank report card with blank spaces for grades in health and hygiene, posture, distinct speech, obedience, and conduct and morals. The report card seemed to grade only on my worst subjects, and I immediately imagined growing up Amish and receiving lots of failing marks.

I’m not sure why I jumped to this imaginary scenario. I could have pictured myself as anyone:  maybe an adult Amish woman who passed on the word of God to my large family and derived pleasure from quilting, baking, and gardening. But after  I took the notebook of Amish assignments down from the rack and completed the “As dead leaves ruin a lawn, so bad habits ruin a life” ditto, I read more assignments extolling reserved, modest, and calm kids. I couldn’t help but picture myself — braids unsymmetrical, apron dirty — trying to defend myself with a mouthful of Pennsylvania Dutch slang from hecklers on the playground calling me Abstract Emily.

I passed the “Did you know?” True or False test at the museum, and then I got into my Mustang (which had acquired only one parking ticket) and I drove out into the county. The hills were softly rolling as the tourist web sites had described them. Horse hooves and buggies clickity-clacked on the pavement. Neat white farms were tucked away in the distance. Alfalfa fields were being plowed with mules by married bearded men in suspenders, button-front pants and straw hats. The cherry orchards were in bloom, and little creeks near the old stone mills reflected the sky. The girls in dresses with capped sleeves played in driveways with their siblings. One sign read “Cold home made root beer.”

It did seem like an idyllic escape. That is until I started to recognize late in the day that some of the buggies looked like they were being driven by themselves. I think this was because the drivers had crouched down to hide from the camera they assumed I had. It made sense — I was trying to be polite by passing buggies with a safe distance; I was going slow around the country road turns, but ultimately I was just a tourist driving around trying to get a good look at the Amish and their kids in their homes, and they were hiding from me.

By dinner I was done with Lancaster County. I had had enough of the Amish and other tourists; although I had not directly spoken to anyone, I had been thinking about them all day and it was taxing. But in Lancaster food is served Pennsylvania Dutch-style, which is smorgasbord-style at places called the Good ‘n Plenty and the Plain & Fancy. These are the kind of restaurants where when you open the door you see older men from Christian bus tours in white tennies and loosened belts looking at pot-holders after dinner while they wait for their wives to return from the ladies room before the group can board the bus for the biblical theater.

The men at the family-style picnic table I was shown to had rosy complexions, most likely from high blood pressure. They were that kind of happy-faced, hard-stomached, fat, deep-down nice people that I tend not to be able to have a conversation with. So at dinner I spent the time burying my feelings in food. When I was passed fresh brown and white bread, I looked around the table to see how everyone else was eating it. They were using the bread to shovel up pickled cabbage and sweet peppers, whipped butter, cottage cheese, and apple butter.

We didn’t really talk about the Amish much, probably because everyone had been talking or thinking about them all day. One friendly woman said about her husband, who had a mouth full of pickled cabbage, “He just loves pickled things, anything with vinegar, especially cabbage,” and he said, ‘Mmm hmm,” because his mouth was full of pickled cabbage. She said that they, and the couple across from them, were from the city where The Andy Griffith Show was filmed, and that there was quite a tourist and bus tour season there, too. A couple of years ago, she read in the local paper that they had had visitors from all 50 states.

The waitresses put out canned applesauce, fried chicken, turkey, a bowl of pork and kraut, buttered corn, buttered peas, buttered noodles, mashed potatoes, milk, iced tea, chocolate milk, cherry pie with a crumb topping, ice cream, shoo fly pie with a runny molasses center, red Jell-O with suspended fruit, and then at the end of the meal, tea and coffee. “It was nice to meet you,” the couples from Andy Griffith country said. They seemed nice, and I was too ashamed of what I had consumed to think anything unkind about them. I did wonder, however, what it would be like to be married to someone for so long that you announced to a table of strangers that your husband liked pickled foods while he was sitting right next to you eating those foods.

At the Best Western in Paradise all that was on TV was murder. CSI, Law & Order, the news. No wonder people thought they needed to leave the city to get away to the country. I went to the bathroom, and I could see my whole reflection on the back of the bathroom door. I wondered how much time the Amish had spent with their own full body picture or reflection, because looking at an authentic picture or reflection of myself is rarely an elevating or prideful experience. And after an encounter with a smorgasbord, it hurt me to look at it. I wondered if I didn’t need more structure and discipline in my life. I turned off the TV and went to bed obscenely early. Lancaster County-tourist early.

When I arrived at the Amish tour the next day, city school kids were getting off a bus and being passed cinnamon buns and apple fritters the size of their heads along with jugs of “juice” the color of antifreeze. I stopped and watched them while they learned about the horses used to pull the tourist buggies. The teachers and parent helpers were shouting, “Eat your doughnut!” and, “Be quiet!” really loudly while the presentation was going on. One teacher who must have gone to school past the eighth grade said frantically to one student who wanted to ask a question, “Knock it off. Drink your juice.” The horses looked scared.

The horse trainer asked, “Who is strong enough to help me with this buggy?” and most of the class called out, “Me, me, me,” and stood up with their arms raised and tried to push the kids near them down. She picked four boys. If you learn anything in modern public school it might be how to look strong and prideful and how to solve problems with confrontation.

In the gift shop the teacher called out important time honored teachings such as, “You break it, you buy it” and, “If you boys don’t knock it off, I really will come in the boy’s bathroom.” The place looked like a smorgasbord of tchotchkes. There were Confederate flag umbrellas,  sarcastic signs with “Three reasons to teach:  June, July, August!” stenciled on them, a paddle that read “Daditude Adjuster,”  fruit-scented candles from China, joke shirts about Intercourse, Pennsylvania, mouse pads with pictures of lab puppies printed on them, a book called How to Speak Dutchified English, Amish family snow globes, “Buggy X-ing” signs, brass bald eagles, and dolphin paperweights. The gift shop was a prime example of what happens today to a culture that doesn’t adhere to a religious faith in simplicity. If anyone ever needed to confirm the righteousness of the Amish decision to resist modernity, they would need to look no further then the gift shop.

The tour turned out to be surprisingly informative and low-key. We passed a buggy maker and the guide said they cost $6,000 to $10,000 to make. She said the horses in the county were all ex-racing horses, and that Trigger (of Roy Rogers and Trigger) was born in the county. We passed a home with solar panels and the guide explained that the man at that house had a cottage industry making furniture and that he used the solar panels to power his tools. Gas power was OK under Amish law, and if a family couldn’t get a hand cranking washer, they would hook an electric washer to a gas powered engine. We passed a newly purchased house and she said that most Amish pay in cash, and a typical home in the area cost $400,000. We passed a house with a single electricity line connected to an upstairs room and the guide said that the baby in that house was born with health problems and needed a ventilator, so the bishop allowed electricity in that one room. She explained that kids can ride scooters or Rollerblades, but not bikes because the Amish don’t want their kids to stray too far from home.

We stopped by a phone shanty and she said that the Amish use it to call 911 and do business, but they don’t have phones in their houses. We passed a one-room schoolhouse and she said that teachers got paid $1 per day per child, and that schooling one child cost about 7,000 a year. She said that the Amish did not build churches, but that church was held in a home every other Sunday for three and a half hours, and the benches were brought in a wagon to the home. The only music allowed in Amish society, she said, were very slow a cappella German hymns sung at church. Men were served food first after church, and the women might bake 50 pies when it was their turn to host church. We parked by a cemetery and the guide explained that the stones were plain, with just the year of death and name inscribed on them, and that the head stone was placed in front of the body so the spirit could ascend to heaven behind it.

When we stopped at an Amish bakery, I bought jam and decided to force an authentic experience with an Amish girl. I had been looking at books since I arrived in the county, and I wanted to try and read one of the books, for young adults, that played up the romance of the countryside, and I wanted a suggestion. “Have you read any of these books?” I asked her, knowing they are discouraged from reading too much, but not knowing how strictly that was followed. I slid the jam across the counter. “No, I haven’t,” she said, and my encounter was over.

The movie that was included with the tour was called Jacob’s Choice, and it was about Amish history and one Amish boy’s rumspringa, or the period of time he had to choose weather or not he wanted to get baptized and become an Amish adult. Boys have from the age of 16 to as old as 22 to decide, while girls have usually have less time to choose. The movie, with a wink and a nod to the Amish, was, according to the Web site, “told through a high-tech, multi-media production conceived in the finest tradition of Hollywood or Orlando themed attractions.”

I only laughed twice in the “400 years of history in 40 minutes of magic.” Once on the Anabaptists’ perilous Atlantic voyage to America, when the experience was heightened by fans blowing water in the theater to “simulate wind and rain!” and the second time at the climax of the movie (stop reading here if you’re going to go), where a buggy was hit by a car, and the movie screen opened up to reveal a real overturned buggy.

Afterward I went on a tour of a replica of the main character’s homestead. The tour guide assured us that “our Amish neighbors” a phrase used in all the literature and exhibits in Lancaster County,  were just like us, and that as well as canning the food they had grown, they also shopped at Target and Costco, where there were hitching posts for their buggies and they stocked up on Jell-o and Pampers. The guide reminded us in all the rooms that the Amish didn’t shun technology, but that they were just more selective about what they would adopt.

In the house it was easy to imagine a daily life. I suppose that’s why most tourists come to Lancaster County — they want to imagine for a day or so what it would be like to live without electricity on a simple farm in a tight community where people don’t stand apart and where all aspects of their lives are submitted to the will of God.

When I was upstairs in the fictional daughter’s room, though, I noticed that there was just one book, no music to listen to, and no art on the walls outside of a calendar. It didn’t look comfortable. It looked like the kind of humorless room where you would have to remind yourself that if you can’t say it in front of God and your parents you shouldn’t say it at all. It looked like the kind of room you would bring your report card home to with failing marks in posture and obedience, and although you would try hard not to, you wouldn’t be able to stop yourself from engaging in all sorts of forbidden abstract thoughts. • 20 May 2008