Years ago, as I was standing in the checkout line, a woman turned to me and said, “It must be nice to afford such expensive clothes.” We were in a Food-4-Less, the kind of place where pallets of food are stacked to the rafters and you pack your own groceries. I was wearing jeans and an old t-shirt, my hair pulled back into a pony tail, and so I looked around, wondering if she had meant me.
“What?” I said. I wasn’t rude; I was confused.
“I said, ‘it must be nice to afford expensive clothes.” The second time, I heard the undertones in her voice, the sarcasm cut with condescension. Her arms were crossed tight across her chest. She had a small, pinched face and her hair was pulled back into a taut knot. She nodded her head at my daughter, Chloe, who was sitting in the cart. It was then that I noticed what Chloe was wearing: a Ralph Lauren Polo dress, in pristine condition. In my hands, I held the WIC vouchers I was about to use for the milk and orange juice and tuna and carrots. I was visibly pregnant, belly round and defined.
What was there to say? That I’d found the dress for a few dollars at a Goodwill? That I was employed with a good job and married? Should I have explained that I was pregnant so soon after the first baby not because I was irresponsible or didn’t know how to use a condom, but as a matter of choice? Should I have told this woman, this perfect stranger, that I had the best health insurance and maternity benefits I could probably hope to have for years? Should I have maybe outlined the WIC program, given her statistics on the benefits it provides young families, the fact that lots of middle income workers qualify for it?
I turned around, didn’t say anything, because what was there to say? Who knew which was the “right” answer for this woman. Maybe I could have told her that the dress had cost a dollar and change, but more than likely, that answer would have led to another accusation masquerading as a question, then another, and another. There wasn’t anything I could have said that would have proven I deserved the charity I was receiving, let alone the benefit of the doubt.
And I didn’t answer, in part, because I believed then that answering to unreasonable accusations required someone to become defensive—and being defensive was the harbinger of “whining.” It’s a powerful word to describe someone; even now, it’s become descriptor non-grata on talk radio programs, a means of dismissing any argument criticizing a current situation (like dismissing the recession by claiming that America is “a nation of whiners”).
I don’t think, though, anyone will mistake this entry for “whining.” Because my response as I read the letters in response to my Salon piece was far from whining*. It was more on par with anger—the kind that might make a normally rational mother of three chew her nails down to the quick. There were the comments that stood as evidence of poor reading skills, like the person who said I should stop buying shoes (referring to loving Mary Janes was tantamount to buying them, I suppose). There were comments that were asinine, like the reader who insisted that I could have fed my entire family on a pure vegan diet for $5/day. There were others that were wildly inaccurate—like anything remotely attempting to put figures to my potential salary as a secretary, the SSI I get for Ivan, or the cost of my rent. Lots of people weighed in on my degree, the relative stupidity of getting an art degree, at the Master’s level no less, with three kids. Others took that three kids business and ran with it—I was “shitting out” children I couldn’t care for, and hadn’t I had more sense? Maybe I shouldn’t have been so eager to divorce my husband, or maybe I should sue him for more child support, and anyway, didn’t you raise your kids better than to spit out day-old pastries? When I was a kid, we never had pastries, some reader said, and would have loved even day old ones. Clearly Ivan is spoiled. Privileged. Non-deserving.
It’s the last thing that was the common thread, the thing that stuck out. We do this with lots of things: charity, government aid, scholarships. We make people pass a litmus test where anything, any aspect of their lives, is fair game. Do they waste money on cable television? Do they have a newer car? Or, perhaps the most devastating one: Are they “trying”? What does “trying” even look like? What does it entail? These kinds of tests are always about something the tester is lacking or doesn't have (a car, for example). But the terrible thing is that no one person can ever answer all the litmus tests of the world. There will always be someone ready to tell you that you should have thought more carefully about child care expenses, or that your affection for French cheese doesn’t jive with their image of someone who is poor.
This is part of the problem, too: the words “poor” and “poverty” are so broad that they have been rendered almost meaningless. Claim you’re poor, and lots of people think that means you’d better be living out of your car and taking meals at the Mission. Say you’re living in poverty, and you’d better be working a minimum wage gig and buying single cigarettes for spare change. These words, though, don’t reflect the complexity of the economic reality of Americans. The fact that there are numerous people who live far below the poverty line doesn’t make those who live right at, or even above, the poverty line less important. Making that argument attempts to create a false dilemma, where one can eternally ignore the problems of the crumbling middle class, often in favor of paying lip service to helping the “truly poor.” That same impulse attempts to render the experiences of those who “aren’t truly poor” as less affecting, less difficult, and that means we don’t have to talk about them.
Does that sound boring to you? Let me break it down, then: if one more person tells me I’m not fucking poor because I’m educated or have a full-time job, or a car, then I’m going to take my overdue electric bill and shove it up his sanctimonious ass. Living in any kind of poverty is hard, and anyone who has had to be hungry in America has lived in poverty.
More importantly, the vilification of the poor or the working class, or anyone who talks about what it’s like—that it’s hard, brutal, exhausting to contemplate the stretched-thin life daily—undermines the American Dream. If we say that we believe in a system where hard work and determination and “pluckiness” can be rewarded, if we talk with admiration of our grandparents and great-grandparents who pulled together lives from little, if we embroider into our cultural myths people like Bill Gates and J.K. Rowling and their experiences, then we have to allow that people struggle now, that poverty exists, and that it’s difficult. We have to understand that some people try and fail. We cannot have it both ways. We cannot, at least in good conscience, worship the ends while refusing to acknowledge the means. In this case, the means looks like a soup kitchen, or WIC vouchers, or furniture pulled from a dumpster, or a stack of Safeway gift cards sent by friends.
The belief in the American Dream also requires a belief in risk-taking that would not only allow someone—say a mother of three--to throw her money on the table, and get an MFA in Creative Writing, but would encourage it. And how risky was my degree? I had a myriad of reasons to go to school, not the least of which was a scholarship, a stipend, health insurance, and subsidized child care and housing. From where I stand, it doesn't look risky to make use of those benefits.
This isn’t the entire reason I went to grad school, though, just as saying “I like to write” doesn’t convey why I keep this blog or turn out essays. It’s more than that, deeper than I wanted to admit before, harder to admit to than taking my kids to a soup kitchen. My family started solidly middle-class, and then slid steadily down the economic ladder. There were reasons for this, namely my father’s alcoholism. There were failures of all kinds, periods where we’d lack electricity or food. In seventh grade, my wardrobe consisted of one pair of jeans, three shirts, and a worn pair of sneakers. I had no underwear.
At the same time, I was in all the gifted classes, the token poor kid in a sea of middle- and upper-middle class kids. I wasn’t poor in the inner-city way, but to my classmates, I might as well have been. I had never had piano lessons or tutors. I hadn’t taken French or Spanish. But I learned the language of the entitled middle class all the same. I learned its values. And I learned how to pass like I belonged there.
But I never have, not really, and it’s one of my deepest insecurities. I claim my intelligence more than I need to, all the goddamn time, because it’s the trump card in that world—intelligence for its own sake. The most difficult thing in going to the soup kitchen wasn’t the actual act of driving there, unloading the kids, and walking in, but what it meant to me. It meant I had ceased just passing—that I was acknowledging that I had been an imposter all this time. It meant, too, that maybe there wasn’t any way to escape where you came from. All those years, all those moves from tiny duplex to tiny duplex, cars falling apart in the driveway, I remember believing that if I was just smart enough…if I just worked hard enough.... It was the one thing I had.
We pretend that talking about class is an easy thing. We lay out reasons and ideas as though their perfect symmetry of logic and belief would apply in practice as it does in theory. We lay blame on the poor for their own plight. And maybe I am whining. It would be easier to think I was because then so much less would be at stake. I’d give anything to be wrong about this, because then it means that, sure, I failed, but Chloe or Ivan or Giselle maybe won’t. There are lots of times when I’d like that to be true. But it isn’t.
This morning, in the kitchen, I made pancakes. It’s August, and money is tight, like it is every summer, though there’s been no soup kitchen or food bank this go around, at least yet. I managed to sell enough writing to scrimp through these three months without work, meaning I could forgo the spendy childcare. It has not been easy, but I’m making it, carving out a life as best I can. I wonder what the kids will make of these years, what they’ll remember. I flipped the pancakes, poured coffee this morning and Giselle, the baby, turned on some music. Bob Dylan’s scratchy voice filled the kitchen. Giselle danced, swung her hips back and forth with precision, and Chloe and Ivan laughed. I watched them, looked to see if they were happy, and they were. Chloe is still reading The Diary of Anne Frank. Ivan is planning on being an environmental lawyer, even as he’s trying to pay attention in class, even as he knows what it means to be autistic. If anything, I hope they always believe the world is not as bleak and merciless as I sometimes worry it is. That belief is a luxury a lot of people can no longer afford.
*A good many of them were thoughtful, and by thoughtful I don't necessarily mean supportive. I appreciated the hell out of those.
**Post-Salon essay, I had a few days when I wanted nothing more than to only write under a pseudonym, forever and ever amen. And then I thought, fuck that. The only reasonable solution was to ditch the nom de plume entirely.