The instant you leave the insulated world of high school, you have to start explaining yourself. You are now meeting people who have no idea how you came to be. And over the years, your story layers like one of those geological samples, shown vertically, different stuff pressing down each year.
While we are walking in Forest Park, a friend I know through our mutual love of books and theater asks how I grew up, and for the first time I realize, with a bit of a jolt, how I consolidate all these years. I add socioeconomic tags.
When I say that my dad and his college friends started an ad agency, I add that when he died suddenly of a heart attack, my mom received nothing, because the partners had all agreed that any stock would revert to the firm. Why on earth would I bother with that detail? Because it always hurt her feelings that she was struggling to get by as a single mom on a secretary’s salary and their old friends assumed that she had been left quite comfortably well off. My mom is gone now, yet I continue to make sure people who could not possibly care less are informed that we did not receive any money from that cool agency. Like it matters.
That is not my only socioeconomic shorthand. My grandmother was “shanty Irish but with lace-curtain taste,” I say, trying to encapsulate a woman who managed to raise seven kids and make sure they all knew how to play tennis and attend a formal cocktail party, all on the slim proceeds of my grandpa’s little grocery store. And why? Because her mother came over from Ireland and became a lady’s maid and taught her children all those niceties, because this was America, where anything could happen.
I also say proudly that I grew up in Normandy (a mixed inner-ring suburb that is now predominantly Black). And that, though I went to a private girls’ school, it was “the down-to-earth sort, not one of the fancy ones.”
Now that I am listening for it, I hear other people tag their reminiscences, too. “We couldn’t afford to go to restaurants when I was growing up,” they say, or “We only had soda and dessert on special occasions,” or, “There were eight of us, so we made do with—” leftovers, hand-me-downs, camping. I like how proud many of us are of having gotten by without much money. If you have grown up with more love than cash, or you survived through grad school on free happy-hour food and ramen before it was hip, you have a certain resilience.
On the other hand, I tag in the opposite direction, too. If someone went to an Ivy League school, I will confide that my dream—which I never dared mention, because I knew we could not afford it and in my family, you did not incur debt—was to go to Amherst College. If someone seems snooty, I will drop something about “my dad’s ad agency,” though I did not even know him long enough to have a memory of his face or touch, let alone his work.
Why, again, do I bother? I have never felt like a member of any particular socioeconomic class. A friend teases that I am the most downwardly mobile person he knows; more than once I have begged for a pay cut or a demotion so I could do what I loved. By annual income, there have been years I would have easily dipped below the poverty line. Yet I draw huge pleasure from the world inhabited by people with a thousand times the assets, loving its art, symphony music, antiques, exquisite fabrics and designs, food, and wine. In this country, we classify even hobbies by income, and taste is thought to be the exclusive domain of those with money (when so often it is just the opposite). Wade Davis, an anthropologist from British Columbia, explains Canada’s stability, its absence of class tensions, its congeniality, and its far better track record during the pandemic, by using a simple trip to a grocery store. “In the U.S. there is almost always a racial, economic, cultural, and educational chasm between the consumer and the check-out staff that is difficult if not impossible to bridge,” he writes in Rolling Stone. “In Canada, the experience is quite different. One interacts if not as peers, certainly as members of a wider community. The reason for this is very simple. The checkout person may not share your level of affluence, but they know that you know that they are getting a living wage because of the unions. And they know that you know that their kids and yours most probably go to the same neighborhood public school. Third, and most essential, they know that you know that if their children get sick, they will get exactly the same level of medical care not only of your children but of those of the prime minister. These three strands woven together become the fabric of Canadian social democracy.”
We, on the other hand, are constantly differentiating ourselves from either the class “above” us or the class “below” us (I land in the middle often enough that I have done both). It is obnoxious, ridiculous, and a waste of breath and semiotics. But we live in an invisible hierarchy of, if not class in the British sense, advantages, privileges, access, or the lack thereof. And they have shaped us. I did not go to Amherst College. Why does that matter? Because I had enough grit to make the best of my second choice? Or because you cannot hold me to the standard you might expect from someone who had that advantage? My mother had to work hard for a small salary to raise me—why does that matter? Because I learned how to budget from watching her carefully write down every single item she put on her charge card, then draw a line and write the statement date so she knew when we could charge again? Because it was painful to have people make unwarranted assumptions about how we “ought” to be living? Or because I secretly wish we had been able to keep a share of the proceeds, so I could have gone to Amherst and been as snooty as the people I try to con?
None of this matters, in the end. I would be happiest if we had a sort of Club Med society, where everybody was handed the same number of clamshell tokens every morning, and no comparisons needed to be made. (Socialism!!!) Yet I am keenly aware of the judgments and stereotypes people form, whether because they think you are some rich bitch who never had to worry or because they think you came from a tasteless, frumpy lower-middle-class and lack refinement. So depending on who I am talking to, I drop the names of places I have been, the operas and plays I have seen, or I muster the street cred of growing up next to some of the roughest neighborhoods in the metro area, daughter of an impoverished single mother.
And sometimes I forget, and toss out the wrong tags, and watch people’s faces change.
None of these qualifiers were toxic in the nation’s beginning, because class was more fluid here. But as privilege and poverty entrenched themselves, calcifying the entire system, the nature of wealth, the range of occupations, and the quality of education all changed. It became harder and harder to break free of the invisible class structure or move about within it. Thanks to consumer culture, those of us without serious money are slapped in the face a hundred times a day by what we cannot have, and therefore cannot be. And those who do have money—that unctuous word, wealth—throw up the barricades, because they feel the hot breath of resentment, and they fear it. Hope and ambition used to knit the social fabric together, back when noblesse oblige meant sticking out a hand to pull others to your level. Now that fabric is ripping right down the middle, where that nice solid stable middle class with just enough used to live, and it is becoming harder to talk across the divide, no matter how much shorthand you use. Too little binds us together.
I found Davis’s anthropological analysis by clicking on a Facebook excerpt. When I go back to add the link, I notice for the first time what the article is titled: “The Unraveling of America.”
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.