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Class acts

Once again, my cat does not care that I wish to write. She is being unbearably, puke inducing cute and more than a little annoying. My husband, who has much longer arms and pushes his laptop away from him on the desk so there are acres of space for the cat to lounge in, has trained her to expect to be curled against the arms of someone when s/he is working at a computer.

I have to admit that her presence is comforting as well as irritating.

Kind of like class, comforting and irritating. I come from a working poor, white Southern family. My parents are no longer technically working poor; after many years they scrambled their way up to blue collar lower middle class. But somethings don’t change just because the hand can rest in a pocket for a long while before going to the mouth.

We don’t want to see how class shapes our perceptions; we want to pretend we are all middle class or better yet, rich. And compared to many other nations, we are rich in our flagrant gobbling up of a much larger than fair share of the world’s resources. But our comparative wealth does not change the relations within our own culture.

I am tip toeing my way to the specifics, the concrete details, the crass class acts. And the crass behavior is not that of the lower “orders.” No, it is the professional, the upper middle class whose behavior is crass. Oh, and the tiny-little-see-me-as-worthy demon that rests in the left side of my neck, pressing against one side of my trachea, slowly restricting the flow of air, making it difficult but not impossible for me to breathe. That makes me thrash and crass.

I slowly getting more specific, more concrete, though in the next little bit I still skim the surface, I can’t dive into the details because I’m doing the ethics and economics do-si-do. (What is mine to reveal? And what might get me canned? Why the hell do I ever take jobs that inhibit my writing? etc.)

I’d rather spend a morning with 30 “at risk” teens (translation poor as hell, in trouble with the law and/or having family troubles, mainly black with a few brown and white kids) than 30 retired professionals (translation way well off, over groomed, white with a dash of color for flavor adults). I have done both recently.

The “at risk” teens generally are better behaved, and not just because they know the hammer will come down on them. Yes, they will act out, sometimes violently, though I haven’t seen it. Every person I’ve ever met, regardless of socio-economic class, with major stressors in life gets crispy, frayed, inflexible, liable to lash out. Yes, the teens care a lot about their image and spend some time being mouthy and posturing.

Retired professionals care even more about their image. They are mouthy and can be mean, though in more indirect, “giving the cut” sort of ways. They posture. They do not listen. They talk over each other. Some of this is age and hearing loss. Some of this is the freedom of not caring what others think, which for many comes as they get older (I can’t wait). Some of it is just what happens when you get any mid-sized or bigger group of humans together without strong and well worn rituals to quiet them down fast and keep ’em quiet. (The house lights coming down at a theater hush people down almost like magic). They got quiet quick once they were in the presence with someone who had status as an authority.

Work got done; it wasn’t horrible. It was normal. There were lovely and funny moments. The bad behavior of the retirees wasn’t that bad. But how they acted wasn’t that different from how the teens acted; I’m not sure they would be comfortable acknowledging this. The main differences between the two groups were the Southern accents, colorful slang, and richer emotional range of the teens. These gown and town differences are largely shaped by class, family background and/or race.

I point to this because too often the professional class in my town sees those differences as signs of maladjustment. I am not saying those particular members do. They might; they might not. What I care about is how those differences are used to keep people out of the playhouse. How those differences are used by professionals to disguise their own bad behavior. They can pretend that how they act is better, nicer, kinder, when it ain’t.

Those differences are used to paper over the prejudices that make them feel good about themselves. I cannot tell you the number of times that people have been shocked to learn that my parents are not professors, that they don’t have college degrees, that my mother is a custodial worker at a food court. There is an awkward silence; they stumble over themselves because they cannot make sense of me. You see, poor Southerners (white, brown and black) must be stupid, must be ignorant, must not care about learning or culture, must be mean spirited, must be lazy, must be fat, must be conservative, must be uncouth, must be less than. So I cannot exist.

“You’re sophisticated” said with an unvoiced “surprisingly.” This was said to me a little over a year ago. Folks from my background can’t be sophisticated. It must have been the grace of a college education or the four years I lived in San Francisco that made it possible. This completely negates the many people like my father who combines in his person a deep joy in working with his hands and a rabid curiosity about the world and how it works. A long life with little money and a deep dedication to place and daily routines means that my father has seldom left North Central Florida. Not physically. But he willingly lets his mind explore the wide, wild and wacky world.

On Saturday mornings in the late 80’s, my father and I had a ritual. He would watch Style with Elsa Klench with me, and I would watch This Old House with him. The focus of Style was runway shows and haute couture, clothing as art. Daddy and I would talk about the clothes. It wasn’t an exercise in ridicule, though sometimes we made fun of things we saw. And we didn’t spend much time castigating the designers for never thinking of non-thin women even though we thought that it was a problem. We enjoyed looking and talking about the artistry- the fall of the cloth, the joy of an extreme construction and the grace of elegant lines. Similar conversations continued as we watched New England families renovated, with expert help, their homes.

I am not suggesting that most poor Southern daddies willingly watch haute couture programs with their daughters. But I am tired of people being surprised that poor folks, without college educations, without extensive travel, still might care about culture and have the ability to make connections and nuanced observations

I can hate, in an incandescent rage sort of way, the shitty, selfish fucks that make up the professional class. It makes people uncomfortable when I share this “truth,” the intensity of the delivery in no small part and understandably adding to their discomfort. Of course, I also understand that poor folks are shitty, selfish fucks. We all are balls of wonder and woe, joy and pain, spite and kindness, evil and goodness.

Growing up poor, you have to get “tracked up” to have any hopes of going to college. I got tracked up. I was teased out of my Southern accent. I went to college. I even eventually got a graduate degree. But I paid and still pay for that privilege. Half in and half out of the professional class, I cannot help but pick up its prejudices.

The other day I was working at my data entry job. I’ve worked for this particular company on and off for years to help pad out my income and because I find data entry relaxing, until about 20 hours a week after which it induces intense physical pain. A customer came in to pick up some toner for the copier in his department. He was a scientist, most likely a researcher, possibly a professor. He was polite and patient. In no way was what happened next his fault. His only fault was being part of the professional class. You see, part of me wanted to him to acknowledge my being in the club. I didn’t interact with him in any way, but I wanted him to somehow magically notice my advanced degree. To know that I am more than a data entry clerk. Because it is not enough to be a data entry clerk. A data entry clerk is less than.

Then I was annoyed with myself for thinking that, for caring, for believing, if only for a few moments, that my fellow workers are “less than.” A few years this would have sent me into a tail spin of self loathing complete with visions of knitting needles stabbing out my eyes (I shit you not). Now I notice it with some chagrin but also with compassion.

Our jobless recovery means that many people, after long job searches, are “settling” for the equivalent of data entry jobs. Many college graduates are unable to find work, though sometimes I wonder if it is because they are unwilling to take jobs that might mean they are seen as “just a data entry clerk” as somehow “less than.”

There things that could help at the level of policy. There are radical experiments I’d like to see happen in the workplace. I think Directors and CEO’s regularly should have to clean the toilets. Barring things largely beyond my control, I write about my experiences and my frustrations. Not because I want y’all to feel guilty (well, maybe a wee, little bit) but because I want y’all to take time to think about class and to pay attention to how you act it out.

How do you treat the custodial workers? Do you acknowledge the data entry clerks? Do you assume that people with these sorts of jobs are stupid or ignorant? Have you stop yourself from taking a much needed job because you are scared you might get lumped with them? Have you felt less than because you can’t quite get the knack of shooting your piss the way all the middle class boys and girls do? Do you believe that the pissing contests you grew up with are somehow less shitty than the ones poor kids grew up with? What are your crass class acts?

My wish for y’all today, keep it classy.

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