My first connection to magazines, maybe my most immediate, is the smell of bleach.
My father worked in a printers’ shop; it was a trade my mother had gotten him into, when she worked at a newspaper. It worked for him, kept him going, and it was a step up; before she got him in, he’d been mowing lawns at golf courses. I did visit him at work, once or twice; after everyone else was gone, when it was his night to have me but he still had to finish some things. I did see him putting pages together. And he brought me things from work to play with, when I was little: a little booklet full of different swatches of color that I could flip through, which I now realize were colors of ink, and a notepad with “Doyle” on it, personalized, which he thought was cool. But I never knew much about his work, or what he did, really. It wasn’t something he talked about when he was home. So mostly, bleach is what I remember. He’d come home, after work, and take out a jug of bleach, and put it on the edge of the kitchen sink. And then — so that he didn’t “look bad,” he told me, “so he could take girls out on dates” — he’d use it to scrub the ink stains off his hands.
I don’t know what my deal is, around class, but it starts here.
Living in Ohio is cheaper than living in New York. 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. The woman across the street sold equipment and moonshine at rodeos, and wasn’t married, and some kids in the neighborhood weren’t allowed to play with her kids, because the understanding was that she’d used to strip. The understanding was also that her husband had committed suicide; this always came hand-in-hand with the stripping rumors, was believed by the nice church-going ladies of our block to be connected somehow. If women were not good women, their men would die: This was the lesson here. 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.
There were a few hints, of course, that our lives weren’t the only possible lives. For one, there was the nice part of town, where the popular kids all seemed to be living by miraculous coincidence. My friend R and I got an in to the nice part of town, by the time we were in high school — C, a girl a bit younger than we were, who was in our girls’ choir. Her house was new, and to us it was massive; two big floors, both with high ceilings, a basement rec room with a real pinball machine and a TV as wide as three people standing with arms linked. C had two kitchens. In retrospect this still seems impossible, something my memory would have put together out of blurred images just to represent how huge her house seemed, but I have tried to remember it differently, and there it is: We were having a movie night at her house, in front of the giant TV, and we wanted to make some popcorn, and her sister was using the microwave. At which point C said, “don’t worry. We’ll just use the other kitchen.”
R and I made faces at each other behind her back. There was an implicit power relation, a con job we were pulling on this girl; she was younger, we were making her cooler by giving her older friends. R had lost her virginity, which made her a real catch; she could tell other girls about it, cash in on her expertise. But the vast majority of our friendship with C involved getting access to her house and marveling at it. Its size, its gleaming fanciness, its miraculous number of kitchens. C didn’t seem to enter into it, as a point of attraction. Not on her own. And our houses, well: We didn’t quite want her to see them. Why should she? She was the one with the big TV.
But we didn’t talk about class. We didn’t have that language. We used the word “rich,” for people like C; this implied quite a few things, not least permission to heap our endless contempt upon the people we described by it. The rich were weak, pampered, shallow, elitist, didn’t have good values, didn’t have to work as hard as we did. We used “poor,” to describe people who were homeless; this was shameful too, implied you were lazy, couldn’t cut it, didn’t work hard enough to get ahead. This was America, after all; anyone could succeed, unless there was something wrong with them. But us, our deal: class didn’t enter into it. We were middle-class. “Middle-class” meant “normal.” It wasn’t shameful in either direction. So it was the term we used. “Middle-class,” we believed, was about character. Not money. Though character and money, we knew, were linked in crucial ways.
I never thought my father was not middle-class. Or my stepfather, or my mother during the bad years. To think that would have been to insult him, somehow. So the most I could ever think to say, about my father, was that he was different. There was something different, about how he lived.
There was his accent. I was not allowed to pronounce words the way he did, or use the same words, or string them together in the same order: “Ain’t,” and “don’t” instead of “doesn’t” (as in, “that don’t sound right”), were not how nice people talked. Similarly, I was to say “movie thee-ter,” not “movie thee-YAY-ter,” and “baby doll,” not “baby dowl.” My father was from Ohio, same as my mother; this wasn’t about place, this distinction. This was about “sounding nice.” Some people in our town sounded nice, some didn’t.
And my father didn’t have a house. He lived in an apartment. It wasn’t separated from the city, but close to it — I could see stores from his back yard, and garages, and restaurants. This was different, not quite “nice,” not quite comfortable. He also didn’t look right, didn’t look like nice people looked; his hair was too long, he wore leather jackets and jean jackets, he knew men who had tattoos and dated women with big, long hair, like the hair sexy girls had in videos for metal bands on MTV. His brothers rode motorcycles sometimes and broke their bones, they walked around without shirts on saying “ain’t” and “don’t,” one of them had legally changed his name from Joseph to Boozer, to celebrate getting out of court-ordered rehab. He was the one who broke his bones most often, and my brother was named after him — not “Boozer,” sadly, but “Joey.” But the family accepted the name change, embraced it; he was “Uncle Boozer,” and we said hello to cousins around town. Hey, you’re Boozer’s girl. Also, my father didn’t have two parents. I was confused by this part. He didn’t have a Dad and a Mom, I didn’t have a full set of grandparents on that side. But my grandmother wasn’t dead; she was just not there, and we just didn’t talk about it. So what I had was a Grandpa and an Aunt Mimi.
The history, as I have pieced it together, is this: When my father was very young, his mother was hospitalized. No-one would ever tell me what for, and at this point in my life I’m honestly not in touch with anyone who knows, but it was a “breakdown,” a mental illness of some kind. My grandfather had too many children — they were Catholics, after all — and a wife in an institution who was not expected to leave any time soon, and he had to make some choices, financially speaking. Specifically, he had to choose which children he could and could not afford.
My father didn’t make the cut. He went off to Aunt Mimi. She was my real grandparent. My father had cordial relationships with his father, and with his brothers, but Aunt Mimi was the one he loved.
She was fearsome. When I took a Barbie to Aunt Mimi’s place, she told me to put it away, because Barbie had a short skirt on and no panties; “she needs to hide her shame,” is what Aunt Mimi said. She was a salty old broad, legally blind, fed birds religiously because she liked to hear them sing to her, and was very much not in the mood to be pitied or patronized or taken care of, under any circumstances, by anyone in this world. Anyone, that is, except my father. I never saw him with anyone, the way I saw him with Aunt Mimi; not my mother, not any of his girlfriends, certainly not in the presence of other men. He spoke softly and politely, pulled out chairs for her, cooked her a nice meal when he visited. My father was a passionate and excellent cook; it was the skill he was proudest of, and he would insist that I watch him while he put together every meal and narrated it all, telling me what he was doing that lesser cooks wouldn’t know how to do or would leave out; I dated a man for two years, I think specifically because he had this exact same habit, and to this day my good memories of my father all revolve around food. I didn’t realize until much later, that this all came from Aunt Mimi. That he had cooked for her every day, growing up. That was their relationship, not a simple mother-child transaction of caring and being cared for; they were a team, and took care of each other.
I fucked up with Aunt Mimi, the first time I met her. I was greeted, I was shown the bird feeder where the birds came to keep her company, I was shown around the place. And then I said, “wow, I’ve never been in a trailer before.”
I meant it nicely. I liked trailers; I got a bit jealous, every time we saw them on vacations; I wanted to live in a house like that when I grew up, self-contained and mobile. It seemed vaguely magical to me. It did not, however, seem magical to Aunt Mimi.
She whipped around on me like a snake.
“Well,” she said, “la-dee-dahhh, missy. You enjoying yourself? Is this an experience for you, coming down to see the poor trailer folks? It’s such a treat, getting visitors from the palace.”
I got sent outside, to think about what I’d done. We were all supposed to be middle-class. We were all middle-class, because this was America, and we were all normal. But there was a difference, between me and Mimi. And I wasn’t supposed to talk about it. There were things I wasn’t supposed to say, about the trailer.
When my father dropped out of high school to mow lawns, it was for Aunt Mimi. Money was scarce; he was old enough to work; he did it, took the full-time job and took care of her, because that was what they did for each other. He was mowing lawns still, when he met my mother.
“When I married your father,” my mother always tells me, “he was the most brilliant man I’d ever met. And the funniest, and the most charming. At a certain point, he really was just the smartest, most amazing man in the world.”
This is something she tells me, so that I can feel better about him. It’s what she can give me, after all that’s happened. But it’s also a warning, and a lesson — about people. About how they can change. About who you can fall in love with, and why, and why you should be careful.
My mother came from a different world than my father. “Middle-class” described her, without stretching. She belonged to the first generation of her family to attend college. Her family had moved up in the world; they had been coal miners in West Virginia, but my grandfather became a bricklayer, and had eventually owned his own bricklaying company, so my mother and her siblings went to college and got good, respectable office jobs. I am still, as far as I know, the only one of my high school friends to graduate college. And that was entirely my mother’s doing. Her fight — to get into college, to be the best at her college, to do all her homework on the back of the washing machine when it was her turn to do laundry, and she only ever wore hand-sewn jumpers, young lady, and she cried when she didn’t get straight As — was the subtext underneath everything I believed, about my family, and intelligence, and education. We didn’t cry when our clothes weren’t new or cool, we didn’t want more toys; our family bought books, because we cared about learning. We didn’t hate school, we didn’t slack off, we didn’t resent homework; we were there to actually learn things, not fool around or worry about prom. We didn’t flinch when there were bullies, we didn’t apologize for our intelligence; those people would regret it when we got into college and became their bosses.
And yet, after all that ascenscion, she wound up supporting a newborn and a three-year-old on about $16,000 a year. Because of my father. Because of what happens when a child is abandoned by his entire family; what happens when a brilliant boy (and he was; he was intimidatingly smart, verbal, without having been educated past the age of fifteen) leaves school and settles in to a life of lawn-mowing and manual labor; what happens when a man waits until he gets married to become a child again and have a woman whose job is to take care of him, just him, no obligation on his end; what happens when that man learns to associate the presence of other children in his house with the idea that he’s not needed, that he’s going to be given away. What happens, when a man carries the weight of that much unfairness, when a man carries that much rage. My mother and my father waited a long time to have children, relatively speaking, but when they had them, that’s when he started drinking. And that’s when he started to beat her up.
I’d like to think it wasn’t entirely my fault. But on some level, it was: When I was born, he got into bed and did not get back out of it for six months, except when he needed to get another beer. I read books of feminist psychology that tell me this is not unique; that a wife’s pregnancy triggers Oedipal complexes and patriarchal assumptions, that men realize they are no longer the center of their wives’ attention (if they ever were) and can’t handle this; that men have breakdowns, have affairs, that domestic violence escalates or begins, during pregnancies; that this is all because of patriarchy and that if we resolve patriarchy it will go away. It explains the fact that my father’s reaction to my existence was not celebration or love, but despair and rage; it does not excuse or alleviate it. Over the next three years, the violence escalated, lulled, escalated again. Until my brother was born, and a priest finally intervened. Told my mother, finally, that she was going to die, and her children were going to die, unless she left; that this was not hyperbole, or worried prognostication, but the probable outcome, and that her obligation as a woman and as a mother was to get out, get out now, get out when he wasn’t looking and make sure he could not find us.
She ran away from home. Which many women have to do. Unlike many women who have to do it, she had the college degree, had the infrastructure of family; we lived in other people’s houses, we lived in bad apartments, we slept on furniture people would otherwise have thrown away, I remember more than anything else from these years my mother suddenly starting to cry when I wanted a sandwich and she had to tell me there was no peanut butter, we’d used up our peanut butter and couldn’t get more. But we ate, we had apartments, we had furniture. Other women who have to run away do not have these luxuries. Which does a lot to explain why many of them never run away at all.
This is something we don’t speak about enough; the role of economic stress in domestic violence, or the role that cash, pure cash, plays in keeping women vulnerable. It’s a knotty subject; some abusers undermine their partner’s financial security, take exclusive possession of the bank accounts or spend all the money or demand that their partners work less often or stop working altogether, and so the women cannot leave because they have become unemployable or simply don’t have access to the cash they’d need to escape. And sometimes, women don’t leave because there is not and never has been enough money. Nobody should have to choose between the violence of extreme poverty and the violence of an abusive relationship. But it remains a choice between violence and violence. Class is not separable from the discussion. Because gender and class have never been separable at all.
When I was twenty-five, I told my mother that my office job was now paying me $30,000; I was complaining about this, actually, that I felt like a failure, hadn’t studied the right subjects in school, would probably spend the rest of my life trying to make ends meet and answering other people’s phones. She told me she hadn’t made that much until I was in my late teens.
“But you had the office job,” I said. “You worked in PR. I thought we were doing okay.”
“Honey,” she said. “I had children. Was your stepfather going to do your homework with you? Who was going to cook dinner? I worked in that office part-time. And when you came home from school, I was always there.”
The argument doesn’t settle into trailers and suburbs, college degrees and high school dropouts. The argument, if there is one, rarely seems to settle along any firm lines at all.
I didn’t know what we were until I moved to New York. Didn’t know the name for it, until I got here.
I was twenty, the year I moved; old enough for my mother to have told me what happened, with my father, and to let me make my own choices. I had adored him, growing up; he was my best friend, my idol. I blamed my mother for the divorce, throughout my childhood; yelled at her for “hurting” him, for making him so lonely. And she let me do it. She listened to the child psychologists as they explained that in my mind my mother was the strong one who could be a parent, and my father was the weak one who needed me to parent him, that I would probably always turn to her to receive care and turn to him to give it. She didn’t once become angry at me; or, if she did, she didn’t let me know. This, I now see, was her greatest gift to me. She let me adore my father; she let me believe I had a father, until I was old enough to know what he had done. And she never asked me to make any kind of decision, after she told me. I sat with the knowledge for a few days, and the next time I saw him, I told him that he and I would no longer be speaking, and he was not to contact me again. He hadn’t wanted children; now he had one less child. Simple as that.
So I was in New York, and I was twenty, and as far as I was concerned, I had no father. I’d made a mistake, loving him; I’d corrected it; I was done, ready to forget. Which was hard, because the streets were filled with men dressed exactly like him.
The boys were growing their hair long, that year. They were wearing what they called “trucker hats,” sometimes with the John Deere logo, sometimes without. They wore the tough-guy polyester vests, the puffy zip-up kind. They wore t-shirts for metal bands; the understanding was that you didn’t wear those shirts because you listened to the bands, you wore them because they were funny. In a magazine called Vice, I could see that the daring boys were going for the jean jackets. I was puzzled, thrown off; I’d come here to get away from my father, to get away from the world he lived in, and everyone worth knowing wore that world around, laughing at it. And as little as I loved my father, I couldn’t bring myself to laugh.
Because those boys, and the girls they knew, sounded nothing like my Dad. They talked about their time in Prague, their time touring Europe; they talked about bands they’d hung out with, and those bands were The Walkmen and The Strokes and some of the girls had fucked some of them; one of my roommates was one of the girls, and when she saw that I had a Juliana Hatfield CD, she smiled and said, “yeah, I’ve partied with her a bit, she’s awesome.” I try to remember that these boys and girls were children, some of them only eighteen years old; I try to remember that I was stupid too, unbelievably stupid, that I also had bad politics that make me shudder to recall. It still doesn’t take away the way they made me fee. I still remember the way I felt, standing in a grocery store, trying to pick out beer with the Juliana Hatfield roommate. I pointed to a beer that I thought was suitably exotic, something city people would drink (feeling guilty, dirty somehow, because nice people didn’t drink beer at all, my father drank beer, nice people only drank wine or cocktails) and she laughed at me, picked up some PBR. “I only drink domestic beer,” she said, in a voice I’d come to realize denoted “irony.” Feeling sick and weird there, in that moment, because if drinking domestic beer was ironic, then drinking it unironically was bad and funny, and I’d only ever drunk it unironically, only ever knew people who did, which meant we were bad and funny; if I drank the PBR it wouldn’t be a joke somehow, they would know. Or: Going to a bar, with my boyfriend, with the activist friends he’d made through Greenpeace; it was called “Trailer.” It was decorated to look like somebody’s idea of what you’d see in a trailer person’s home. To be precise, it was decorated to look like my home; it was decorated to look like the houses I’d visited growing up. We sat on a couch that had also belonged to my grandmother. And to my mother, during the bad years, right after she left my father; it was a hand-me-down. I traced the pattern of fruit in the print and thought about how I’d chipped my brother’s tooth, bouncing with him on the cushions.
“That whole white-trash chic thing,” said the girl who’d invited us there.
That was when I figured it out, the name for what we were. Our name was trash.
I went to a very liberal school, very radical; I’d thought I was radical, before attending that school, because of my whole feminism thing. There wasn’t a lot of room to discuss the feminism thing, at that school; not enough classes to make a major out of it. But there was activism. There was activism against the war, lots of it. There was activism against the conservatives, a lot of angry white men I could hear on Air America talking about “sheeple.” There was anti-colonialist activism, and anti-racist activism, and there was at last a chance for me to step out of my upbringing, to realize that among other corrosive forces in the town where I had grown up — the hatred of women had pressed down on me most immediately, and had been most visible from where I was standing — I had also grown up in an environment that was overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly racist, and that it had taught me racism which I had to unlearn. And we talked about class. About socialism, about the working-classes, about Marx and alienation.
But I didn’t have a language for my experience. Still. I didn’t have a way to say what made me uncomfortable, when I was hearing about class and socialism and radicalism from a boy in a John Deere hat who had gone to Prague. I didn’t have a way to say why it made me uncomfortable when people picked on George W. Bush for his accent or his language, or called him a “hick,” when they seemed to suggest that the main problem with this racist, sexist, homophobic, extremely wealthy white man was that he was not sufficiently sophisticated or urban; still didn’t have a way, years later, when Palin was talking about “Real Americans,” to pinpoint the obvious vulnerability she was exploiting (you called us hicks, you made costumes out of us, you made jokes out of us, you have a bar in your big fancy city and it’s called “Trailer”: of course we want to hear that the “coastal elite” is worthless, of course we want to hear that we’re better than you, that we’re “real”) and to speak about why the further invocation of “hicks” and “trash,” by liberals, seemed so very destructive. I didn’t have an easy way, when confronting my own racism, to speak about the two kinds of racism I’d been brought up with: That there was the racism which spoke, and the racism which did not speak, and that these two kinds of racism were very much about money. “Nice” white people, with a bit of money, didn’t speak racism, or even race, because they didn’t have to; race became silent, not something we brought up, except to affirm that of course all people were equal, and came from such rich and distinctive cultures as well. If you weren’t a nice white person — if you were like my father, or my first boyfriend — you spoke racism, angrily, and you spoke most virulently about Affirmative Action “stealing” educations, or immigrants “stealing” jobs, or men of color “stealing” white women. You saw the advancement of people of color as a hostile force, taking away money you already didn’t have enough of, and edging you out of a hierarchy you’d been trained to believe you could conquer by being sufficiently white, or male, or (most preferably) both. And you saw the advancement of women, and feminism, in the same way; women “stealing” jobs, women becoming unreliable sources of domestic labor because they had jobs, women being twisted and perverted to the point of not “needing” men or choosing men who were not on your team, although of course the real problem was that men continued to need women and wanted us to believe that need was reciprocal, something powerful enough to withstand just a bit of exploitation or violence on their end. I didn’t have a way to identify the John Deere hat’s dismissal of feminism as “bougie” acenscion up the corporate ladder and the angry hatred of “feminazis” that I’d grown up with as essentially the same thing: A way to condemn women for wanting to work, and to earn money, and to have some independent ground to stand on by so doing. I didn’t have a way to explain how the different oppressive systems interlocked, how they expressed themselves differently within different locations. Of course, I didn’t believe that misogyny or racism or homophobia were any more excusable if you were poor, and couldn’t do so having seen their impact. But as long as all this remained unspeakable, I also couldn’t start to explain how (for example) misogyny caused poverty, or how those forces became less visible as you moved up the class system, but remained just as pernicious with every step.
Because to do that, I would be dissing The Working Class, implying that they were violent or racist or sexist or backwards. And that’s not what The Working Class were, in our enlightened New York City discussions. The Working Class were an exploited workforce, noble in their struggle, possessed of Real American Values, like those people you see in the Michael Moore movies. They weren’t made ugly by their pain; they weren’t made angry by it; oh sure, they didn’t have the resources we did, but that was why we were working to save them, they were noble savages and we stood in solidarity, with our advanced understanding of corporate fuckery, our advanced degrees. The Working Class were nothing like the people I’d grown up with. They weren’t my father. They weren’t Uncle Boozer. They were not even my grandmother, or Aunt Mimi; they were women, and disabled, and so strangely absent from the discussion. The Working Class was an idea. And in fact, they were an idea that looked something like “middle-class;” blurred into it, when we focused our anger specifically against the very wealthy. They were a label, devoid of inflection, accent, specific jobs, levels of education, histories and faces. They were simply what everyone spoke for. What everyone was.
6. 99 Percent
I don’t begin for a second to think that what I’ve described for you is a comprehensive idea of The Working Class, or can speak to that huge idea in any comprehensive way. It is only what it is: One history. It comes from a specific location, a specific state and town; it comes from whiteness; it comes from femaleness; it comes from a history. Which is one history, which cannot be exchanged for any other.
But I believe in the value of specific histories. The more I write, the more I know this: “Objectivity” is nowhere to be found on this Earth. Everything you are, as a writer or an activist — every place you come from, everything you’ve learned — is called upon, every time you set forth to speak or to change the world. The less we know what we carry, the more it undermines everything we do. And to write from one’s own experience, to construct a biography, is to understand where one connects with the world. This is specifically a biography of class. But I see gender, in this history, very clearly; I see heterosexuality, and I see race, and I see disability; I see location in time and space, and don’t believe any of these things are fundamentally separate from the ways money and culture (and culture is money, of course, always was; “taste” has never been an absolute good, never divorced from the reality of production and consumers) construct our lives in the world.
I have friends who are Occupying Wall Street. Good friends; people I trust. And I respect them, and I know the work they’re doing is good. But I’ve confessed, to at least one of them, that it scares me a bit, uniting behind a banner of the “99 percent.” I worry that this erases differences, erases histories, puts us into a position where all that matters is whether you are extremely wealthy or not, and I can’t match that up with my understanding of how class works, how it gets tangled up in all of these separate identities and oppressions. I realize now that this is the opposite of why they’re there; they want to bring the differences to light and make them connect without erasing each other, to create some model of solidarity that actually works. This is good work; this is necessary work. But before I can think of joining them in doing it, I have to do this, here. I have to begin to break that 99 percent apart, to speak to why it scares me.
Because the 99 percent includes C, who I envied and exploited while pretending to be her friend. The 99 percent most likely includes the boy in the John Deere hat, and maybe even the Juliana Hatfield roommate, who made me feel so dirty and ashamed and angry that to this day I make too many mean jokes about Brooklyn. The 99 percent includes my father, wherever he is. But it includes my mother, too. The work of occupying my specific space between them, the work of understanding that each of them had privileges forever denied to the other, growing up to understand how I can exist as the product of them both without imploding from the contradictions and hostilities, is the work I have to do to understand the idea of a “99 percent.” Everyone I see on the street in Queens, most likely, is a 99 percenter, and that doesn’t mean I don’t inevitably benefit from the oppression of many or most of them, or that they don’t inevitably benefit from my oppression about 49% of the time. Embracing a “99 percent,” for me, means that solidarity is not sameness; it never was. I don’t want that fucker in the John Deere hat representing my Aunt Mimi; he’d hate Aunt Mimi, and fear her, and to be honest if it were a bad day Aunt Mimi would probably give him a few reasons. I don’t want to believe that he’s only pretending not to laugh at her, right now, because he had a hard time getting a job after he left college. And I don’t want to believe that, if she were still alive, and if I visited her trailer now, I’d still give her a reason to kick me out.
That, to me, is what understanding the 99 percent is. I need to say that, yes, I am a part of it. But I am also this. And no matter what street I stand on, no part of me is disowned there. That I am this history, and that I do want and require a solidarity. But that my vision of solidarity requires understanding that history doesn’t wash off, doesn’t get bleached out. That none of its marks on me wash away.