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The Percentages: A Biography of Class

1. Bleach

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.


2. Kitchens

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.


3. Trailer

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.


4. $16,000

“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.


5. Domestic

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.


  1. LostLeo wrote:

    Your essay cut right to my soul. I was raised in a small, cliquish Republican town in Indiana in the late 60’s and 70’s. We were poor white trash, Democrats, and outsiders as most everyone else had roots going back generations in the area. I was ashamed every day of my life there. The popular kids did live in the nice homes, but nice homes were everywhere. The crappy homes were sprinkled among the nice ones. Which made it impossible to hide where you lived. I dreaded kids coming to my house and seeing our crappy house and my white trash father who swore at everyone all the time. Worse yet, he hit me in front of those rich Republican kids with nice homes. To this day I associate Republicans with my shame and I hate them for it. Not that their Republican policies don’t merit scorn on their own merits. Wow, you really opened up some can of worms for me. Thank you for the self awareness.

    I hope the OWS movement is sustained and effective. Maybe it can bring some self awareness to those who revere the rich and choose to believe that the not rich are just not deserving of a decent life.

    Friday, October 14, 2011 at 7:09 pm | Permalink
  2. Dom wrote:

    You’re one of the best writers out there now. Your voice and talents should spread farther and wider. Thank you for your resonant prose.

    Friday, October 14, 2011 at 7:26 pm | Permalink
  3. Jim wrote:

    An amazing piece of writing. Thank you.

    Friday, October 14, 2011 at 11:09 pm | Permalink
  4. Steven D wrote:

    One thing I know. You are a great writer. Keep at it.

    Saturday, October 15, 2011 at 10:24 pm | Permalink
  5. Kathleen wrote:

    I just want to tell you that this speaks to me. My mother and father were from 2 different worlds, and I see myself in a lot of what you have written. You have a very good understanding of yourself, and you helped me see myself a little better through your writing. Thank you.

    Sunday, October 16, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink
  6. NobleExperiments wrote:

    Bravo, Sady.

    My hope for OWS is that it brings together all the classes that so far have Othered each other to see that we are really all on the same side against those few who use our differences to divide and conquer.

    I think the brilliance of the OWS movement is that is has resisted pressure to produce a list of demands. I was at Occupy Seattle and Occupy Tacoma on Oct 15, and it very clear that there is much age, ethnic, and class diversity represented. If a list is produced, there will always be some who are not represented. Currently everyone, even those who are skeptical, can see their own concerns represented.

    That said, there’s a real effort at Occupy Seattle to get an idea of what all the concerns actually are. There is a working group going through getting people to write down what they want and why. The final result – even just as a historical document – will be fascinating.

    Sunday, October 16, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Permalink
  7. Daniel McCoy wrote:

    A wonderful piece of writing, and very perceptive. You cast light on aspects of class which are seldom voiced. My own experience growing up in California with a very “blue collar” background resonates with much of what you say. I’ve spent many a holiday dinner with family in trailers. Few of my co-workers seem to have ever seen the inside of one. I am impressed with your insight in seeing past your own specifics to the general aspects of class which affect us all.

    Sunday, October 16, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Permalink
  8. M wrote:

    Thank you for an amazing piece. Everything about it is good, but I am commenting for a specific reason, since I can see you read the comments. I am twice divorced, with one child for each marriage, and both times what happened is what your mother experienced, including that I have supported my kids’ relationship with their dads, if if it sometimes drove

    Sunday, October 16, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Permalink
  9. M wrote:

    Grrr – I don’t what happened there.
    Anyway – sometimes drives me mad. (To be fair to both of us: husband 2 wasn’t violent, he just went out on a two year binge, only coming home for food and comfort).
    Now I have thought to tell the children the real story when they are adult. If not for other reasons, then to afbidt whatever they hear from well-meaning friends and relatives. But I would be really sad if their conclusion was to cut off their fathers

    Sunday, October 16, 2011 at 5:01 pm | Permalink
  10. vic wrote:

    Absolutley amazing. I’m too cowardly to write about my own crippling anxieties, especially sharing my resentments and chagrin, but you are certainly brave. I have come to this article via Metafilter and they are stupidly distracted in the comments; arguing about irony FFS. Many of them are missing the point and I guess that is what it is. I do get that this aint all of it but what you have shared in one chunk (so well written) is amazing. Thanks Sady.

    Sunday, October 16, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Permalink
  11. riese wrote:

    this is so good, sady

    Monday, October 17, 2011 at 12:50 am | Permalink
  12. Tony wrote:

    Thanks for a valuable contribution to Remedial Class Consciousness for Americans. Since the working class has been banned from mainstream US discourse, “middle class” has had to mean both “middle class” and “working class”. I grew up thinking my family was middle class, although all of my grandparents were workers and farmers.

    Sarah: College admissions people are not as stupid as we tend to think. Go ahead and write them the truth — you’re a good writer and they will recognize that, and the truth well written is rarer than the Pepsodent smile. As to the rest — work, music, money — get admitted first and then see.

    Monday, October 17, 2011 at 8:14 am | Permalink
  13. Anne wrote:

    Your essay is terrific and raises the question, what does a useful solidarity look like?

    I do think there’s a very important role for solidarity to play, and that we should be focusing on commonalities among the 99%. Very clearly the ironic trucker-hat thing (and similar) are wedges, meant to divide the 99% by letting the $60,000/yr people sneer at the $20,000/yr people (to use money as a too-loose proxy, for brevity). But so the trucker hat thing is exactly what the 99% movement is trying to get past.

    I taught college classes about economic inequality and justice in the early ’00s, and we’d use Bill Gates as an example of someone who has a ton of money and who should be heavily taxed etc. And students would protest this – why were we so down on poor Bill Gates? He is an inspiring example of how anybody can make it – he’s the guy they were aiming to be, leading a life they thought of as well within their grasp. The students, who were from middle or upper middle class backgrounds, identified more with Gates (who was many steps above them on the wealth ladder, though maybe not on the “class” ladder if class is about modes of dress and speech) than they did with someone who was even one step down from them.

    But this is what OWS needs to do, to get people who are somewhere in the middle or upper part of the 99% to think of the people who are in the bottom 50% as being people they have more in common with than they have with Bill Gates. And to get people who are in that bottom 50% to think of people at 70% as potential allies too. Doesn’t mean we need to erase differences, but the whole point of this solidarity thing is to focus on commonalities.

    Monday, October 17, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Permalink
  14. Chey wrote:

    Thank you. As some have echoed, you’ve brought to light something uncomfortable that I felt in my bones about the 99% and similar arguments. I still don’t have the words but I now have a way to try to find them.

    Monday, October 17, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Permalink
  15. Brian wrote:

    nothing to add but
    good work
    can I send you my t-shirt from prague?
    it says “prague” in english so you can wear it an ironic, “middle-class chic” kind of way.

    Monday, October 17, 2011 at 5:48 pm | Permalink
  16. The_Overdog wrote:

    I have to ask, why where some guys in a hat who had different accents than your dad such a class key, when you had plenty of indicators earlier in life? I don’t doubt your experience, I’m just curious.

    Monday, October 17, 2011 at 9:29 pm | Permalink
  17. Sady wrote:

    @Overdog: Good question. I think it’s something I’ve sort of explained in the piece, though: I knew my Dad’s lifestyle was different than my Mom’s, and I knew that there were some people who had two kitchens, and I knew that some people didn’t graduate high school and some people did graduate college. But I didn’t think of this in terms of class, because “we were all middle-class,” so it was really just a difference between comparable lifestyles. I didn’t know very many people who had a lot more money than we did, and so didn’t see any disparaging attitudes or get a real glimpse of how those people lived, or what their culture was like, outside of that one rich friend, whose lifestyle really just seemed like a novelty more than anything else.

    Moving to New York was different. There was an obvious disparity between the very rich and the very poor in that city. And I routinely met people who were rich on a level that I hadn’t quite believed could really exist, prior to that. I mean, I knew there were rich people, but I never thought I’d meet them; I thought they lived in their own world, and that this world and my “regular” world would never meet. My mother’s family, and eventually my mother and my second stepfather, did pretty well; I’d learned about that, and I’d been taught not to be insensitive or to look down on people who didn’t have what we had. (Although — again — class wasn’t something we had a language for, it wasn’t something we spoke about. The polite thing to do with matters of money was not to speak about them, because people went through hard times sometimes, and they probably preferred not to talk about those hard times, but we were all “regular” people, all middle-class, so money should not really come into the discussion.)

    So it was moving to New York, and seeing its much starker, less fluid class dynamics, that actually got me thinking. Also, it was the realization that there was this whole level so far over our heads that did it. It was very strange, knowing people who knew rock stars, knowing people whose parents had houses on Martha’s Vineyard, hearing a “normal” price for an apartment in a “cool” neighborhood quoted, and realizing that it was more than my parents paid for rent on their house. It was like watching a TV show, but I was actually in it. I was seeing a lot of things I didn’t fully believe could actually happen to real people. I’ve since realized, from discussions with other people, that I went to a particularly hipster-prone school, and that the level of clueless privilege demonstrated by the kids there is kind of a known thing, something that people joke about. But encountering wealth for the first time in my life, and running into the privileged, disparaging attitudes I’ve described for the first real time in my life, changed something for me. I saw forms of entitlement I’d never really encountered at close range, assumptions for “normal” that were beyond what I’d ever been encouraged to think were possible for myself, forms of disparagement I hadn’t seen before, and I suddenly realized those forms of disparagement were directed at me, at my family.

    So that was what did it, to answer your question. It was the fact that the kid in the trucker hat was a real prick.

    Monday, October 17, 2011 at 11:10 pm | Permalink
  18. Courtney wrote:

    I loved reading this. There were so many points I could relate to – I don’t even know where to start. I grew up in a blue-collar suburb where most people worked the same types of jobs and class was never an issue. Money was always an issue – even if you made “good money” – and people always talked about it and the friction it caused but it was very superficial. I wish I could explain it better than that but I can’t. My dad, for example, made a somewhat comfortable living and my mom never worked outside the home because taking care of my brother who is autistic was incredibly time consuming. Until my dad lost his job and went for seven months without it or any unemployment benefits. We lived on food stamps, my siblings’ and my jobs, and help from family. He finally did get a job again but it was less than 1/4 of what he made before. I’ve always admired him, and still do, but have a hard time accepting the fact that he deals with his loss of pride by drinking. I guess that’s why I responded so positively to OWS – I finally felt like there were a lot of people who truly felt what I felt but were not ironically mocking me.

    I’ve been very supportive of the occupy wall street movement from the begininning, and – while I do still think it’s a great, important movement – this piece has made me rethink things a lot more. I’ve always taken pride in my upbrining and am quick to share my struggles with people, but I dream of a day when money will not be an issue and I will make “good money” and be able to send my kids to “good schools” and live in a “nice neighborhood.” It’s actually hard for me to admit to the fact that I am very priveleged in many ways. I abhor the people you mentioned who claim to care about “the plight of the working people” while ironically mocking them. However, I often use my working-class upbringing to my advantage and fail to mention the many priveleges I’ve had. Life is full of contradictions and I will probably spend my whole life sorting things out. Class is such a dividing issue everywhere these days. I’m glad it’s being brought into the spotlight, and that so many people are willing to share their stories. It’s important to have these conversations where we LISTEN and try to UNDERSTAND real stories of real people instead of sitting in our ivory towers and discussing the plights of the working class from a distance.

    Wow, I kind of went off here! Anyway, great piece Sady, I enjoyed reading it and it made me think about a lot, as well as all of these comments!! Kudos!

    Monday, October 17, 2011 at 10:41 pm | Permalink
  19. Satan wrote:

    excellent, excellent piece.

    Monday, October 17, 2011 at 11:38 pm | Permalink
  20. The_Overdog wrote:

    Thanks, and yes you did discuss it, but I think I missed it because the age at which we all become class conscious is of course variable, and mine happened at such a younger age, that I completely missed the significance. At 8, yeah, I would have been wowed and confused (by rockstars!, travelling!, Martha’s Vineyard!, and covering jerkiness in irony), but by 20 I was already jaded, so it just completely went through my head. And I think that’s part of why the conversation is so complex.

    I actually think your story is more powerful than mine because of the age at which you experienced it – I was just a petulant child pissed (at my parents of course) that I didn’t get all that I wanted for Christmas and that our house was small. You got to aim your anger more squarely at the people who deserved it, if that makes sense.

    Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Permalink
  21. clew wrote:

    This makes me feel the way a lot of late Terry Pratchett makes me feel. Thank you.

    Sarah in #40: I would really like to hear music that you wrote for or about Occupy. Anger and class anxiety included.

    Wednesday, October 19, 2011 at 6:36 pm | Permalink
  22. COG wrote:

    Sady, thank you for writing this. For sharing this. For exploring this. What a beautiful, thought-provoking essay.

    Wednesday, October 19, 2011 at 10:10 pm | Permalink
  23. Amy wrote:

    Thank you for reminding me of the compiled events that become us. Makes me want to hug my Mom and Gran.

    Thursday, October 20, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Permalink
  24. Annamove wrote:

    Amazing article, and the comments have been interesting too, I’m in England but I’d like to respond to this…

    “The problem is that they are and will remain the working class or the working poor; opportunities for those folks are vanishing, too, as we lose manufacturing jobs and other blue-collar mainstays. For those folks, McJobs are steadily becoming the only jobs there are, so when a college kid gets upset because there are “no jobs” (meaning he or she might have to enter food service or work at Target or KMart) that person is really expressing frustration at a lack of opportunity that’s been felt within other communities for a very long time.”

    I understand what you mean, but I feel that actually the college kids are also not getting jobs in these retail and food industry jobs, I’ve been applying for jobs since failing my course and not wishing to let my parents pay for me to resit something I may just fail again. (A guilt I couldn’t bare as they are already feeling very hit by everything) and I’ve been unable to get any job what so ever, I would be willing to work in cleaning, at b&q as a bin-man, anything but your lucky if you even get a rejection letter, let alone doing what I want to do as a living.

    I would say that we are lucky for our social system here in England (For instance Job Seekers Allowance) However since the financial collapse a lot of people are being blocked from receiving aid on increasingly thin reasoning, my partner and I for example where constantly blocked from receiving job seekers allowance, even though one of their own staff fixed the issues on multiple occasions, someone else higher up kept putting us back over to non eligible. Similar happened to a family on our street who had several children to support, they spent quite some time with no financial aid at all. (But at least they kept a roof over their heads while it happened…)

    At the end of it all, I hope this 99% movement is not just forgotten when the graduates get their jobs, and I would encourage those who can rally participation from those who are not being well represented at the moment to try and do so, so that it doesn’t become just focused one one specific demographic. I think hoping for it not to won’t help on it’s own, but actually getting in there and making sure that everyone’s included is necessary, in whatever it might be.

    I’m sure there are some strong thinkers trying to work out what can be done, and I hope that they who are come up with some real numbers and plans that might take the ”what would they have us do” sayers by surprise. Though to be fair, from what I’ve been reading there is a lot of concern that this movement doesn’t just stop at graduates, the people involved in it really do seem to care about those who are worse affected than them, and that many are finding the strength to participate because they aren’t doing it for themselves, they are doing it for everyone else too, we’ve all been told for so long that we shouldn’t move as there’s no point, that to do it for ourselves is impossible, but we’ve been told that doing it for others is always worthwhile, so… We need to do it for each other perhaps?

    I guess at the bottom line there’s a lack of respect in all layers of our society, it just presents itself in different ways depending on background, if we could all just respect each other a little more, no matter where we come from, what we look like or how we sound… But people seem to be so attached to looking for things to hate others for :/ Some might ask what answers I would give to solve this, and I wish I had some! I suspect a lot of us want to find those answers, but I doubt it would ever be a simple one. Maybe it will be someone here who can come up with a new answer, a guiding light for a path forward?

    Sorry for the long post, I cut half of it out but I just needed to get some of this stuff that’s been bashing around my head this week out, so maybe at least I can get some more sense out of it 😀 Maybe someone else will see something in it too I don’t know.

    Sunday, October 23, 2011 at 6:43 pm | Permalink
  25. Momsomniac wrote:

    Well said.

    As a member of the first generation of women in my family who went to college, I can relate.

    At least at work now I rarely have to hear the term “trailer trash” anymore since folks have had 10 years of my response: “I have family that lives in trailers – not one of us is TRASH.”

    May I link?

    Monday, October 24, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Permalink
  26. Annamove wrote:

    I felt I would share this – It’s a tidbit from Nottingham (UK’s) Occupy group as featured on the LeftLion website, it’s a small bunch but I read it and thought of this thread.

    “For the information of those whom voice their opinion on the homeless, and rightly so to raise such a point, the Peace Camp has seen varying degrees of between five and eleven homeless people on each night. Each oine of these has been treated, as are all, as welcome to share the food, blankets and tents, and have become respected and loved co-participants in this manifestation. One particular person, whom I had previously met begging for money, now actively informs and encourages members of the public to the cause and spends all day on such a task (at his own behest) and has voiced is joy at finally being valued by absolute strangers. THIS is the change we need.” – yosoyyo 19/10/2011

    It’s small but it shows that maybe already a little bit of good has come from the occupations here.

    -The quote was in response to queries on the thread as to if the homeless people would be getting access to warmth and food, as such was being donated to the occupy group in the town square.-

    Tuesday, October 25, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Permalink
  27. Annamove wrote:

    Momsomniac – That is the perfect response, though it’s a shame that it’s needed. I’ve recently started trying to explain this problem of knee-jerk labelling (Typically of groups that the speaker doe sent even know.) of people to my o/h hopefully he eventually can get it through to is friends and family too… One person at a time I guess.

    Tuesday, October 25, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Permalink
  28. ASG wrote:

    Oh, what a heartbreaking, beautiful, wise, devastating post. Thank you so much for sharing it.

    There’s so much that I resonated with here, even though my background is quite different from yours (I’m the only daughter of immigrant parents, who had a professional background in the old country which led to anxious striving in the new one). I was particularly startled by your story of innocently expressing your delight at entering a trailer for the first time. Almost exactly the same thing happened to me when I met the family of the man my mother dated after she divorced my father. This new family’s motorcycles and swearing and poker games and beer drinking were just so exciting to me as a kid, and going to their house was an adventure that I looked forward to every time. But my mother and her partner’s family were extremely uneasy with one another for reasons that weren’t really clear to me at the time, and that led to a lot of very cryptic insults and affronts and divisions — many of which are only starting to become clear to me as an adult. In my innocence, I too made a lot of “nice trailer!” style missteps, some of which I remembered and understood for the first time in decades only upon reading this post.

    Later it came out that his family, like many working-class families, had serious trouble with alcoholism and abuse, which meant that I (like you) both loved those people and realized that they could do ugly, evil things. I still don’t know what I think about that.

    Anyway I don’t want to make this comment all about me; I only want to say that the powerful story that you tell here is one that I understand even though I come from a very different place. And that in turn gives me hope that we won’t lose the granularity in the 99%, even as we unite against those who hurt all of us.

    Thursday, November 3, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink