Her name was Tayla—Tayla Neel. In September of 1959, she lived in the Golden Spread Trailer Park, a refugee camp of next-to-homeless people at the far northeastern corner of Mackenzie, Texas. The snobby crowd at her high school laughingly called her “Trayla Trash.”
In a way, they had a good point. “Golden Spread” was a catchy phrase recently coined by a reporter at the Amarillo Globe-News. It was meant to promote tourism in the Texas Panhandle. “Golden” referred to the area’s expansive wheat fields. “Spread” was a regionalism referring an extensive acreage of farm-and-ranch land. But that Chamber-of-Commerce delight, “Golden Spread,” was hardly an apt term for describing this unsightly collection of old house trailers, with their accumulated trash, scattered around twenty, dusty, treeless acres of West Texas prairie. Tayla didn’t think of where she lived with any kind of pride.
Mackenzie was the county seat of Goodnight County, which was at the western edge of the Texas Panhandle and bordering New Mexico. The city was on Route 66 and had a population in the 1950s of about fifty thousand people—half of them white; one-quarter, black; and one-quarter, Hispanic.
In Mackenzie, Tayla was on the bottom rung of the white socioeconomic ladder. At the top were the twenty millionaire gas-oil-and-ranch families. Tayla was at the far end of the prosperity scale from them—along with the other barely-earn-enough-to-eat white families. From their men’s steady railroad jobs, even most of the black and Hispanic families were better off.
In the fall of 1959, Tayla was fifteen and about to start her sophomore year at Mackenzie High, which was located a long way south of the Golden Spread Trailer Park, across the Rock Island Railroad tracks in downtown Mackenzie. Tayla hadn’t always been trailer-park “poor white trash.” Indeed, until her mother died and her father began drinking himself to death, Tayla along with her brother had attended the prestigious St. Ann’s Catholic K-12 School, which was also in downtown Mackenzie, on the western side of Mackenzie’s beautifully landscaped Central Park.
It was in the middle of her eighth grade that Tayla’s mother had unexpectedly died of a rare and untreatable form of bone cancer. And that was when Tayla’s father, who had worked for twenty years at a good-paying job in the local Texaco oil refinery, found he couldn’t handle his wife’s untimely death. He took to drink and lost his job.
With their father unable to work because of his alcoholism, there was no money to pay the tuition at St. Ann’s School for Tayla and Russell, her ten-year-old brother, let alone pay the mortgage on their house in the mostly Catholic neighborhood around the school. So the Neel family moved to the poorest and most run-down part of Mackenzie, where the Golden Spread was among the half-dozen seedy trailer islands of poor whites. These trailer parks were north of Mexican Town and just outside the city limits.
To get to school in downtown Mackenzie, Tayla rode the earliest city bus, which by the time it passed in front of the dirt road leading into the Golden Spread Trailer Park was already filled in back with domestic-help ladies from Mackenzie’s Colored Town—the northwest quadrant of the city. Next, the bus filled in the middle with the Mexican cleaning ladies as it passed through Mexican Town—the northeast quadrant of the city. Being the only white person on the bus, Tayla had a reserved seat up front behind the driver.
Tayla worked three jobs. Two were after school—the first was in the afternoon as a record-keeper in a large department store on South Main Street, and the second was in the evening as a filing clerk at the Maclean National Bank. She had lied about her age for both jobs. On weekends, she worked her third job at the poultry processing plant near her trailer park. They didn’t worry about her age at that job. Working thus, she supported her drunken father and her little brother.
At school, she had no time for socializing. She had to do her studying and homework whenever she could—during the twenty minutes she had before school started, at lunchtime and while she walked to her next class. As a result, she had no friends and no time.
She also didn’t have time to think about her future, beyond getting through the current semester of school. She was determined to graduate, but she had no time to ask herself, Then what?
Tayla didn’t worry about her clothes, or about putting on make-up or jewelry or accessories. She brushed her long blond hair quickly and put it up into a pony tail. Working in the backrooms of her first two jobs, she didn’t have to worry about what to wear or what she looked like to the public. As for her third job, the one thing she was most careful about was taking lots of baths and frequently washing her clothes. She didn’t want to smell of processed chicken, as did many of her co-workers. At school, Tayla was always clean and smelled fresh. But she was as plain as they came. She could have been pretty—she was tall, fair-skinned, blue-eyed and slim—if she only had the time and the energy.
The boys paid her zero attention. And the girls whispered about her disdainfully as she passed by, nose in her book. She didn’t mind. The only thing she resented was being insulted for where she lived. And she never let the nickname of “Trayla Trash” pass. She would walk up to the offending girl and snarl in her face, “I’m not trailer trash. I may be poor, but I’m far from trash. I dare you to keep up with me.”
Tayla didn’t say what she was doing that they couldn’t keep up with, because for each of her three jobs, she was lying and saying she was eighteen. The other girls might get back at her by reporting this to her bosses or to the school authorities.