Let's talk about class. Economic class, if you were wondering. What is mine? My class is complicated. According to social media, it's not supposed to be. My father was called a salesman, but this meant that he worked a lot of strange, low-level jobs from driver of a Wise potato chip truck to seller of promotional pens and pocket knives to businessmen. He also, in other years, delivered jelly doughnuts before dawn to coffee shops, measured security gates for stores, and — the most abased job — handed out massage-parlor flyers to men in Midtown.
I really appreciate everyone's comments! Thanks to everyone for taking the time. I just wanted to add, about my own dad, that I realized he was also incarcerated, while in the military. After his sergeant viciously Jew-baited him, he physically attacked his sergeant, and was put in the stockade, and given a psychiatric discharge. Yet another way someone can be "lumpen." (Also like my mom, who, as I mention, was also incarcerated in the home for incorrigible girls.)
I love this piece, Donna! Our backgrounds have some points in common, but others very different. But even the differences are somehow of a certain piece, so to speak. You and I are close in age but my parents were probably about 10 years older than yours as I was the youngest of four—in fact, my brothers and I span the baby boom from 1946 to 1961. Jewish. Very working class. Similar maternal anxieties around in adequate education. And my father, too, was a salesman, in particular selling novelties to concessioners— erotically themed decks of cards and cigarette lighters, and so forth. In fact, they were probably sold at the same types of establishments for which your father handed out flyers! Even the photograph of your father reminds me of my own father—What was it with Jewish man of that era with hairy backs and shoulders? Anyway, I could go on forever and I haven’t really even touched on class issues per se. But this all I have energy for now; more another time.
Ive been thinking about my class shame a lot of late. I think it may be at the center of my central sadness. Gramsci helped a bit in grad school. Too much to write here, but this is fantastic and very important writing, esp in usa. I lived in england for 17 yrs and class is always in the conversation - for better & worse
A subject I've been trying to figure out how to write about for a long time! I guess there are many of us from working class families in transition (or at least with aspirations) given the huge economic boom after WWII. I remember when I was a tween my goal was to be 'refined'. By this, I think I meant being able to talk about classical music and appreciate 'high art.' I wanted to know how to behave at a fancy dinner (the Army helpfully gave lessons in these rules to my mother and her cohorts, married to draftees and enlisted men from the sticks) and how to play bridge and talk about film.
I grew up in a conservative family in a hell-and-brimstone atmosphere, so Marxism was a *revelation* to me -- now the world and my background and my prospects finally made sense! or at least there were tools to start figuring it out.
This is a terrific piece, Donna. As with your exemplary journalism for the Voice and elsewhere, you push the edges to discover more truth in the little pockets and crevices that are easy to skip over. Especially when it comes to money and the other things that contribute to privilege (education being a big one). I tried imagining writing some version of this piece about my own class background, which is also complicated. My parents both came from large, poor, working-class families. My mother's parents were Portuguese immigrants; my father's family were itinerant farmers. My father was functionally illiterate. He didn't finish 8th grade, and even before that he was often pulled out of school when there were crops to harvest. (I have often said that my father never read a book, including the one I dedicated to him.) My mother finished high school and had some college credits but never completed a degree. For both of them, military service provided economic salvation. My grandmother lied about my father's age so that he could join the Army Air Corps (now the US Air Force) before he was 17. So I grew up as a military dependent. We never had a lot of money, there was never a lot of talk about money, there were just things that could just never be afforded. How my parents raised four kids on a GI's measly salary is hard to imagine -- except that, as a therapist pointed out to me later, I grew up in a socialist environment. If you're in the military, everything is subsidized -- your housing, your groceries, your healthcare. It's not the fanciest, but you're taken care of. Nevertheless, everything that wasn't basic was a luxury. My father's booze was essential; we got soda pop once in a while as a treat, and never brand names, only generic. Grapes were an unimaginable treat, maybe we got them every year or two. You get the picture. When my father retired from the Air Force, he started his own business fixing golf carts. After a few years, he gave that up, and my parents took to the road in their Airstream trailer. At some point they attached a bumper sticker that said, "We're spending our children's inheritance." He died first, then she did. We each got $20K as inheritance -- not nothing, but not enough for a down payment on a house or apartment. By that time I was living in NYC and making a living as a writer. I put myself through college with zero financial input from my parents. Because I was a smart kid, it was always assumed I would go to college; it was always assumed that none of my three sisters would. (My older sister eventually got an MBA and is now a state senator in Maine.) Like you, Donna, I studied classics -- first at Rice University, then at Boston University -- and got scholarships and financial aid that helped. The first time I bought bedclothes that cost more than $300, I knew I was in a different economic class than my parents ever were. Very few of my many cousins got college educations. And yet they had children, jobs, and homes, even if some of those homes had only dirt floors. At times I have had the opportunity to help my siblings when they were in a pinch financially. I know they are grateful but I also sense there is some resentment that emanates from that thing you're talking about, a class consciousness that most families -- well, I can only speak for my family, which doesn't have the vocabulary to name or discuss. I became a therapist, and therapists in New York are well-paid. I now have substantial savings to cover me in retirement. Am I in the top 10%? Maybe. I am proud of my working-class background, and a day rarely goes by when I don't think of myself as the kid who grew up in the trailer park in Waco, Texas.
Loved loved loved this piece.
My parents were hoisted out of poverty by CCNY and the public sector in general. My dad came to this country at 11 and grew up in a tiny apartment with his widowed mother; my mom grew up in great poverty in the South Bronx. My dad's family had been upper class in his country (Estonia); he always acted a bit like an exiled prince and was careless with money. But he believed people should be taken care of by a strong welfare state. My mom is very class-conscious and her politics have gone way left of center (yay!). They both became librarians and worked for the NYPL for years. My dad eventually left for a different public library organization so was no longer in the union; my mom was a union member till she retired and has a decent pension thanks to the union negotiating a pay increase shortly before she retired.
I'm profoundly grateful for all of this and for our alma mater, as imperfect as it is/was.
I think the transition from working class Jewish small town Catskills bred girl child completely shaped my sense of the world. I learned very quickly as a six year old how strange and I unfair it could be when my father moved the family to Florida where I experienced pedophiles, prejudice, rape and experiences totally outside my understanding including black and white water fountains and Jim Crow. Feeling shamed by being other and within the family I became the black sheep. Being an undiagnosed dyslexic didn’t help in school and rebellious to boot. Writing about this in my recent memoir, my tenth published book cleared away a ton of debris.
Your experiences speak to what an unfair and punishing society and culture capitalist patriarchy has made. But the monarchy wasn’t any bowl of Cherries either. For me all of this raises the question of can “human beings” as a species do any better? Some of us seem to aspire to but are there enough of us to save ourselves and the small planet we inhabit?
I feel this on many levels. My mother was (and still is) a hoarder and rarely bathes. Grew up in an extremely wealthy NYC suburb but had no money, so I knew shame and envy from a very young age. But look at us now, survivors who can own their shit and talk about it. Your writing is luminous and inspiring; thank you so much for sharing it!
I read this essay as if it was a thriller. I don't think I breathed. This is a dense cube of literary bullion that could be dropped into hot water and turned into a book.
I love this piece so much. Thanks for writing it.
Thank you for sharing this deep history. So many of us can relate. We find ourselves always helping helping helping and rarely stoping to wonder why. There is shame guilt and even hatred at not understanding our background.
As a visual artist I appreciate your words as swords. To save us and keep us working and helping with love and lust.
Lucky artist, white bi, married monogamous . Inherited enough to replace wages. Lucky, so much could have ended it for me.
Read and praised her. Very wonderfully-written And important piece!
I have a lot of thoughts provoked by this piece but am thumb typing and wanted to let you know I enjoyed reading it. Capitalism sucks for sure. I grew up upper middle class with a lot of privilege compared to many (most?). Not sure I cared for it too much.