23 October 2011

You Guys Must Be Rich

“Occupy [Your City Here]” keeps going on, somewhat miraculously; I haven't been involved, have only been involved in activism by any stretch of the term tangentially and sporadically since I was in high school, really, and I wonder how I would have felt about it then, when it still seemed to me that my life would be spent in passionate protest. I am a little excited about it now, from a distance, feel that it is good that it is happening; generally I am pleased to see extensive and spontaneous use being made of our public spaces and freedoms, testing them to make sure they still work.

And it is interesting that class is starting to become a part of the public conversation that's harder and harder to ignore, if only in a simplified way. I thought about class as an anarchist youth, certainly, listened to proudly working-class hardcore bands and made conflicted steps towards claiming that identity for myself (all the while cringing against the philistinism of my surroundings and hungering desperately for a sense of security they couldn't provide). Still, the extent of what it meant to be working-class didn't fully develop for me until I went away to college and lived among honest-to-goodness rich kids for the first time and began taking the kind of jobs my family had had all their lives to support me in my leap away from my native culture. Until that point the “upper class” was a political concept that showed up mainly in newspapers and statistics. We stayed out of each other's way.

Sady Doyle has a wonderful essay on Tiger Beatdown that's been making the internet rounds, about her conflicted feelings toward OWS and the understanding of class that lumps an entire 99% together. I recognize intimately the milieu of the childhood she writes about, especially this:

My first stepfather worked the night shift at a grocery store; it wasn’t understood that we were doing poorly. My best friend’s mother worked the deli counter at a different grocery store. You could live on that money . . . So, not all of us had office jobs, or the education or background required to get them. But we had our own houses, we were suburban, the idea that we weren’t firmly middle-class would have been an insult to us. Of course we were. Everyone was.”

Growing up, we lived roughly at the middle of a fairly smooth gradation along the river from the older, shabby blocks of wooden houses toward downtown (and south of those, the only housing project I knew about in my city) all the way to curving streets of well-kept two-story brick homes whose backyards sprouted play structures that looked more solid than our entire aluminum-sided ranch house. My first elementary school there was in the direction of the nicer neighborhood, from which most of my friends were drawn, but differences between us still seemed easily hopscotched over. They'd have the name-brand backpacks and fancier lunches, maybe, but we still played in the same parks. I think we all figured that aside, perhaps, from a handful of celebrities or people living in mythical ghettos or rural shacks, everyone was basically like us.

In fifth grade I transferred to a performing arts school in the inner city. Here I noticed for the first time a few kids who were clearly poorer than me. The trick at this school was somehow to remain authentic, of the street-savvy neighborhood, while still having Starter jackets and nice sneakers; those who couldn't manage both of these things were mercilessly teased. One of the few friends I managed to find was Breanne, a scrawny, clingy, loudmouthed blond kid who lived on the hill up close to the housing project. I went to her house maybe only once; I remember it being dark and cluttered inside, disorienting, and the outside covered in the kind of stick-on siding that resembles roof shingles. We were there just to pick up her homework or something; she never wanted to invite me over.

And in fact, I may have had her over only once as well. During that visit she let slip to my mom that I had a crush on Jake Bullock (10-year-old guitar prodigy, dreamy eyes beneath floppy brown hair) and I wanted to wring her neck for it I was so embarrassed. My mom had recently cleaned house, I think, when she came over; we looked good. Nonetheless I was unnerved the next day at school when Breanne said to me, “You guys must be rich, huh?”

No one has ever said that about my family before or since. In college the common, polite, getting-to-know-you question “What do your parents do?” was a nonstarter for me. “My mom's a receptionist, and my dad drives a truck” was, at an expensive liberal arts college, far distant from the sort of teacher/architect or lawyer/lawyer parings that had brought forth many of my classmates. In my year alone were at least two rumored heirs to big-name business fortunes. My family's history was a thick, blank wall for these interlocutors. What more is there to talk about, in a line of waitresses, cashiers, factory workers? What link can be drawn from those people to the girl waist-deep in Aeschylus and Plato? What is she doing here?

Unless you'd caught me in some chance shibboleth (my freshman-year surprise and envy that a friend had a house with fireplaces in it, for instance, or contemplating out loud pawning some of my stuff for enough money to join the Search and Rescue team), you would not have guessed my origins. More than once I've gotten some variant of “Oh, I thought your parents were professors or something!” In my last job, a woman I was training at one point said, when things had irreversibly deteriorated between us due to her near-pathological incompetence, “You must not have had to work through college.”

I've always worked,” I barked back.

Throughout college I always had a pleasant on-campus job and frequently another less-sheltered service job. The first of these was in a movie theater where I sold tickets and concessions and cleaned. The selling was nominally my job but the cleaning composed the bulk of my time – clearing rafts of popcorn, food, and trash from the theaters after the lights went up, polishing lobby fixtures, wiping down bathrooms, which sometimes included soaking up vomit with a special powder that turned it into a solid substance that could be maneuvered into a dustpan. Even when we were behind the counter and no customers were around, we were not allowed to lean against the cabinets or sit on the one battered stool in the staff area. This connoted laziness. Instead we were to always be cleaning – scouring away grease and syrup from every crevice of every machine and counter. Nearly everyone was younger than me and passed the time saying terrible things about each other.

A boy in my circle of college friends asked, apparently in all innocence, “Why did you start working there? Do you just really like movies?”

And so that was a kind of class realization, there.

When I graduated and moved to Chicago I did so knowing that I'd fit well enough into whatever service job I could find. I could handle the shooting foot and ankle pains induced by long hours of standing, the forthright disrespect from customers and managers, and the fierce, bizarre rivalries that sprout up when people are forced to compete for the only things – the big tips, the days off – that make their jobs bearable. I stayed in my last bad office job for three years largely because I felt that the service industry was the only obvious alternative.

For me, being working-class has meant a certain instability at the foundation of my life. Will I be able to go to summer camp? Will we lose our house? Will I be able to afford to go to college even if I get in? Will I be able to afford my second year of college if I make it through the first one? My student loans? What if my parents are laid off? It has meant that I do not ever fully trust that things will be okay or that I will not suddenly be jettisoned from the ranks of the well-off and the cultured. And it has meant that a slender serpent of resentment slithers quickly through my ribcage when I sense the presence of those who have not been kept continually off-balance by these questions.

Just briefly. In a way I am frequently at home among these people, after all – they are so well-bred, congenial, have had the time to read books and think of art and never felt they were stealing anything from their families by doing so. But there is a little venom in me still, and all the foreign privilege I have lucked into may never be sufficient antidote.