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THIS IS THE ONE ABOUT CLASS
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.
Did I use the word "abased"? It's because in my family, my father was the symbol of everything abject, everything contemptible. I am startled, reading this, to remember that, beyond being ashamed of his bad smell and the physical violence he imposed on us, I used to feel ashamed of some of his jobs. For example, that my father got up in the wee hours to deliver fresh doughnuts, and then had to try to fall asleep in the daytime. He was exhausted all the time. I felt ashamed, and also sorry for him. Even though, for the few months he kept this job, a side benefit was that we got free doughnuts every morning.
I was also ashamed when I qualified for free lunch at school (in those days, it was only free for the poor, and cafeteria aides announced exactly which kids were).
My sense of shame — around my father, but not free lunch — came to me partly from my mother. Which was odd, because she was a communist and supposedly the proudest member of the working class. But her shame, like many people's, had complex roots, and it is no accident that it was his massage parlor job that made her crow with crinkled pleasure, in a strange tattletale voice and a twisty smile, "Your father's new job is handing out flyers for a massage parlor, on the street!" She was demeaning him, but she was also titillated.
I could write a whole book about my mother's sexual shame. But she was also a reform-school grad who wanted to become a philosophy professor (and in fact did, before I was out of high school). The concepts of cultural capital and social capital were little discussed in those days, and we never thought it was a contradiction that she, who sometimes supported the family by getting welfare, was getting a doctorate from Columbia University in 19th century German philosophy. Or that I, a working-class kid who grew up on food stamps, decided to go to Yale and major in ancient Greek and Latin. Universities were much less expensive back then, and there was much more financial aid available, especially from the government.
My mother taught me from an early age that capitalism was wrong, and that the wealthy robbed the working class — robbed us — of the product of our labor. But she also taught me that the intellectual life — reading, writing, being a scholar, doing "something important" — was better than other ways of living, and that we — that is, my sisters, my mother and me, for she left my father out — were better than other people because we were "smarter." She always told me how great I was because I was smart, and very quickly, my worth came to depend on it. On getting not just good but excellent grades, honors and accolades, and people who didn't know me thinking I was "brilliant" and "important."
I didn't know this was connected with class for a long time.
Or that my mother was, in fact, an elitist, and that she had taught me to be one, too.
My mother used to say that my father was a member of the "lumpenproletariat." Do you know this word? It's the term Marx coined to mean "the rabble-proletariat," by which he meant, according to the Encyclopedia of Marxism, "the class of outcast [and] degenerate elements that make up a section of the population of industrial centers. It includes beggars, prostitutes, gangsters, racketeers, swindlers, petty criminals, tramps, chronic unemployed or unemployables, persons who have been cast out by industry, and all sorts of declassed, degraded, or degenerated elements."
Marx also called this group of people "social scum." Regardless of what you think of this, or what you think of "lumpen" as a category, my father certainly met the definition — he couldn't keep a job for long, so yes, he was chronically unemployable. Before I thought about how my mother used this term for him, I was about to tell you that there were, in fact, a number of "legitimately abject" things about my father that had little to do with class. Because of mental illness, he often went for very long stretches without bathing, and smelled the way that some unhoused people do. His underwear and socks — I know because I did the laundry — were disgusting and streaked, torn and inadequate. Not because we couldn't afford new briefs and socks — we could — but because he was so bad at taking care of himself. Perhaps, didn't want to.
I felt so bad for him, handling his terrible, sticky, crumpled black socks, which were much too small for his feet. However, what really made him "contemptible" to me was that he hit me. On a couple of occasions, he hit my mother, too, which I witnessed. But it was mostly me. I was scared of him. Yet my anger and loathing for him, my attacker, got mixed up in my mind with his occasional, unbearable odor and his heartbreaking socks. I felt sorry for him and I hated him and I was afraid of him and ashamed of him. And I was ashamed by him — the fact that I, an eight-year-old, was unable to prevent him from punching me in the head has probably been my deepest source of shame as an adult.
The curious thing was that my fancy, gifted mother was also, in a way, lumpen. That reform school thing? It wasn't that my mother had done anything criminal, but she was labeled a criminal, "an incorrigible youth," by her parents and shut away in a terrifying reformatory because, as far as I have been able to piece together, she started acting out after my Uncle Stanley raped her, at I'm not sure what age. At the institution for wayward girls — there were many, this was the early 50s — my mother was raped again, by the director.
I'm not sure what she did when she got out, at around 18, but she started dating older men, including a famous bandleader, and it is possible these arrangements were partly economic. She might not have had many other options at that point. Whenever my father got angry at her, he would say, "I picked you up out of the gutter!" His parents opposed the marriage, thought she was dirty and déclassé.
The gutter. It's curious. The gutter formed such a powerful metaphor in my parents' relationship, because she was said to have come from the gutter and he acted as though he lived there and liked it. Someone who stinks on purpose, and wears raggedy, shit-streaked clothes on purpose, seems to be saying that they love the gutter, and want to be considered its denizen.
And though my mother constantly called him filthy, stinking, and stupid, there was an erotic undercurrent to his filth for her. And probably to her intellectual high-mindedness for him.
As my father would later tell me, trying to dissuade me from being queer, "Donna, your mother and I have a great sex life!"
Regardless of whether you think "lumpenproletariat" — it also translates to "riffraff proletariat" — is a useful term at all, it is definitely true that that shame, and defenses against shame, constitute a huge part of class identity in America. Nobody wants to be part of "the stinking rabble," whoever they imagine that to be. And almost everyone is terrified of falling there.
Come, then, with me to Yale in September of 1981, where I have just enrolled as a freshman. So innocent am I that I have not yet understood that almost all my classmates come from serious money. I feel startled and suddenly alone when it comes time to assemble for Yale President Bart Giamatti's Freshman Address, the annual formal address the university's president makes to the freshman class. The boys all pull dark-blue blazers from their luggage, because Yale's color is blue. Somehow they know this, and have purchased resplendent blue blazers in advance. The girls — almost all — iron their elegant dresses, and wear them with jewelry and makeup. And yes, everyone is dressed in the evening wear of the gender assigned to them at birth. I have nothing like this to wear, and therefore wear my jeans.
I also feel rebellious: why do they think we students should honor the president by dressing up? And seriously, is everybody actually going to go along with this?!!
But along with my rebelliousness, I feel shame. I stick out. I feel resentful that I don't have the clothes, the bank account, the great haircuts that everyone else does. My entire four years, everyone looks at me funny.
There are a lot of contradictions to my life in freshman year. I am thrilled to attend The Classics Forum, a weekly dinner where interested students eat dinner with the head of the classics department and are given free red wine while we, presumably, discuss Sophocles. I am thrilled to be one of the few freshmen given a key to the Classics Library, a one-floor athenaeum at the top of a beautiful Tudor tower where all the riches of Sappho, Homer, Horace, and Herodotus lie spread before us and, through the windows of this massive gatehouse, the world.
But I feel the ground slip beneath me as my classmates discuss fun weekends in Aspen and Paris. Some even remark their surprise at the large number of Hebrews in attendance (while I, a Jew, shrink inwardly because there are so many fewer Jews at Yale than in New York).
I steel myself by holding firmly to the knowledge that Karl Marx himself did his dissertation on ancient Greek philosophy, and reread the Greeks for fun throughout his life. I keep reciting to myself the one thing my mom has always told me, that we (my family) deserve the very best in education, in fact the cream of every crop imaginable, because we had so many disadvantages to begin with.
My mother is constantly talking (and writing) about Gramsci, and his famous distinction between "traditional" and "organic" intellectuals. The latter were intellectuals who were members of the working class and remained firmly committed to its interests. She considers herself to be definitely in this category. But I begin to wonder.
Long after I leave college, I have to reckon with it. Regardless of what my mother thought about herself and her many degrees, I had acquired cultural capital by going to Yale, the most blueblood college in America. I developed connections with many people who became formidable members of our generation —Guggenheim, Pulitzer Prize, Tony and Emmy winners, college presidents, heads of foundations, commissioners of government agencies. Well-known authors, two of whom agreed to blurb my first book.
One of my Yale friends got me started in paid journalism by assigning me my first pieces for the Village Voice, where she had recently become an assistant editor. She'd gotten her own job because her mother knew the literary editor. Once I was firmly ensconced at the Voice, I realized that as many as six of us young writers and editors had all gone to Yale. I knew three of them already from campus. We writers and editors were almost all from the wrong side of the tracks at Yale: African-American, queer, working-class. But we were from Elihu Yale's institution, and it was no kind of accident.
As a journalist, even at the counterculture Voice, I only increase my cultural capital. My social capital, too. When I get harassing phone calls from skinheads for reporting on an antigay murder, I can call a police community relations officer who I know. She arranges for the police to watch my home.
At the same time, I always feel like riffraff in the world of media. I never do go to journalism school, and when I cover Rudolph Giuliani's run for mayor, my famous Voice colleague Wayne Barrett criticizes me for peppering Giuliani with questions at a town meeting, instead of asking for an interview. I assume Giuliani will never grant me a private interview because my questions come from a queer and leftwing place, and I want to ask him why his policies are so homophobic when he purports to be a friend of the community. Why he supported a racist police demonstration. I never blend in with the other reporters who cover City Hall, in suits and ties.
I think I have to do journalism like a guerrilla fighter, because I and my questions will always be beyond the pale. At another mayor's Pride reception at Gracie Mansion, I have no summer clothes to wear that are nearly nice enough for the mayor, and so I attempt to disguise a bathing suit and shorts as some kind of summer formalwear.
At this point in the story, something ironic happens.
My father's parents, Elliot and Doris, had purchased shares in a seedy hotel on the Upper West Side that catered to "transients" — that is to say, folks without much money, sex workers and pimps, drug dealers, and occasionally artists. They, Elliot and Doris, were members of the Communist Party, both Russian Jews who had emigrated to the US as children to escape anti-Jewish violence, my grandfather arriving by himself at the age of 14.
My father's father has long since passed away, but during my undergraduate years, my father, who has lung cancer, dies in the same month as his own elderly mother. My grandmother's shares pass to my sisters and me, and we carve out from our own bequest a separate share for my mother, to whom my grandmother has accorded nothing.
In the beginning, the money isn't much. My share is $400 a month. Yet it is free money, something that astounds me. It comes on the regular, and can be depended on. After my mother, sisters and I meet with the lawyer to learn the extent of our luck, we wonderingly go out for lunch IN ROCKEFELLER CENTER, where the restaurants are too expensive for us to ever have set foot before.
We are tremulously excited, and I finally feel flush enough to buy something I have always wanted, a black leather jacket in which I can finally be the butch I want to be. It is $100, and I still purchase it on layaway. I still have to work — even with my part-time office jobs, and later, my full-time Village Voice writing, it's never enough to buy an apartment, or even go away anywhere longer than four days. But it gives me freedom — in particular, artistic freedom. Unlike many other people whose writing is just as good, I can survive on the terrible money that they pay you at the Voice.
I hadn't known about the hotel. My father had sometimes vaguely alluded to "the day his ship would come in" and he would suddenly have dough, but I always thought that was just a pipe dream. With this pie-in-the-sky showering of capital, his plan was to open an Orange Julius. My mother never paid it much heed. My father's parents had never helped us, during the many times that we were struggling. I knew my mother hated them, but that was all I knew. On the rare occasions that we saw them, their apartment in the Bronx was modest and dumpy. It smelled like old people.
But something changes. Via the magic of capitalism, during the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s, gentrification makes the value of any Manhattan real estate rise exponentially. The hotel building has been landmarked, so unfortunately we're unable to sell it for a teardown to someone who'll put up a skyscraper. But gentrification lifts the boats of all landlords, and the amount of money that we get each month rises, rises, rises.
I am finally able to live on it. Which is good, because the amount of money paid to freelance authors and journalists goes down, down, down until very few of us are able to survive on that income alone. Also, I acquire a disability in my hands from constantly using the computer, which makes me unable to write quickly or on deadline.
And so, for me the money is a godsend. But until my 57th birthday, I still wasn't able to buy a house, and that was only with the benefit of my wife's salary, too. And we weren't, and still aren't, able to buy in New York City. Yet I'm not complaining.
A couple of decades ago, the other hotel shareholders and I leased the property to a man who turned it into a boutique hotel. So I could stop feeling guilty about benefiting from exploiting the poor. Even though a former therapist once said, "This city needs SRO housing, and you're providing it." And we were. There is no limit to contradictions.
When I inherited the property, I felt guilty for a long long time. One reason I have done so much activism in my life, and became a leftwing reporter, was that I wanted to pay my keep to the body politic, as it were. If I was unfairly benefiting from society, my thinking went, I should try to pay the unpayable gift back by doing ongoing political work on behalf of people with AIDS, my fellow queer people, and the working class.
Activism for the benefit of everyone suffering from capitalism. I have always felt a call to leftwing activism — I felt it before I inherited the capital, and I continue to feel it, and do it, now that I no longer exactly feel guilty.
Over the years, I sometimes considered selling my 5% share in the building and giving the money away. But having come from precarity, I was unwilling to go back to that state, to go back to the gutter, by giving away this lucky thing, this gift that felt like I had won the lottery. Even in my best year, the most I ever earned from the Voice was $14,000 a year. Even now, I will never be a member of the 1%, though I have finally, after decades, made it to the 10%. In America, that still means we can only afford shitty health insurance.
Let's go back to shame, which still is present. I am embarrassed to reveal that I am in the 10%, which hardly anyone does, especially in the age of social media. On Twitter, you can be called a parasitical, ruling-class anal tapeworm just for revealing, for example, that you are a university professor. (Which is particularly odd given that 75.5% of professors are now adjuncts who earn poverty wages.) But at a time when the 1% are in fact draining all the rest of society of wealth, honest, nuanced, and fact-based discussions are particularly important.
The upshot: here I sit, with social, cultural, and some financial capital. What does this mean? It means I am less powerful than some, but much more powerful than most.
It means I feel safe most of the time.
It means I feel more able to weather terrible changes, which is a particular relief, because the earlier part of my life was full of terrible changes that I could not bear. In particular, my mother's cancer when I was seven, which made my father erupt in violence, and caused my entire family to sink for years.
I have always treated workers well, and tipped generously. First I did it because they were like myself, and my father. Later, I continued to do it because they were my tribe, but also because capitalism is a catastrophe and yes, it is a catastrophe from which I now benefit. Do I think my tips and good treatment make a dent? No, of course not. Tipping will never take the place of overthrowing capitalism.
I also suffer from it, even as I benefit. Capitalism hurts everyone, including me, because it shapes society into something that is terrible to be in. It is bad for all writers and artists, bad for everyone who wants healthy air, water, and food, and everyone who thinks that healthcare is a right, not something to be left to the free market.
I have been wanting to write this piece for years, and I feel almost unable to end it. Tell me about YOUR class position and its contradictions, let us all spill our economic attributes we're not supposed to talk about, and open up this discussion for good!