The Do Over 03: Class Matters
Is 56 the new 26? It seems that way for me as my current professional and existential quandaries mirror the ones I faced 30 years ago. These posts are a series of ponderings trying parse the difference between now and then.
When I was growing up, there were railroad tracks in the neighborhood, but the real class divider was the busiest east-west thoroughfare. I lived in Kenwood on the South Side of Chicago and south of 47th St. the area resembled Hyde Park, which was best known for the University of Chicago and its immediate vicinity. North of 47th St. Kenwood was, well, let’s say it was a little rougher and tougher.
In our household, we were more than a little bit proud of our middle class status. We’d moved on up—down to 48th St. from Lake Meadows to be precise–a solid decade before the Jeffersons ascended the same class ladder to the Upper East Side. We made it clear to all visitors that we got there the right way: hard work, book smarts and savvy. Anyone suggesting otherwise was cruising for a bruising. It was usually but not always implicit that that savvy and those smarts were what separated us from the folks north of 47th St.
That familial pride in our um, stature moved with us to Dallas when my Dad’s job shifted headquarters there in 1974, and looking back, it was interesting to see how we clung to it even after the company went under a couple of years later. Our brands didn’t change; it was pretty much business as usual with one income instead of two. We weren’t the vacationing type, so that didn’t come into play. I still wonder if the brands were less nostalgic than aspirational. It didn’t matter. My father found a far better, more lucrative new job about a year later.
When I was 26, after four years in New York City as a student then four more as a struggling bohemian, I began to find my middle class footing. Rent ceased to be a chronic worry; NYC’s burgeoning food scene became a hobby both via restaurants and shopping, and since part of my income derived from work as a cheesemonger, fine food was also a professional as well as a class emblem. When I was 27 I hosted Thanksgiving dinner in which I roasted a free range bird from a top butcher and then once it was done I roasted Kona coffee beans and ground them for the java to serve with dessert.
My income was often fitful but it ticked slightly upward through my 30s, crashing with a big thud after the dotcoms did the same. In the fifteen years since then, I’ve battled and battled, scrambled and scrambled and as I take a moment to look back, I think I’ve done the same thing my parents did in the mid ‘70s. I clung to emblems of a middle class lifestyle even if my income didn’t always justify it. I work in the food biz so there are numerous stores where I receive a little discount. I definitely should have frozen my gym membership at times, but it was a major aspirational emblem. My brightest moments of self-identification came through the dance, cardio and yoga classes I’d taken, so even when I was walking around on a cane, the idea that a return to such endeavors was right around the corner was important to me.
The big place where I see my refusal to admit the realities of my income situation is in assistance. 2001, 2002, 2004, 2009 and 2011 feel so heroic in retrospect for my ability to bite the bullet, but they would have been much easier to manage with a little help from SNAP. Currently, ACA offers assistance that I’ve not looked into either. To do either would have made me feel like I was denying the savvy and book smarts that are just as much a core value as my workaholism. It would have placed me on the wrong side of 47th St. Also, I’m a New Yorker to the core: I’m gonna hit it big tomorrow, just you watch. I’ve probably felt that way since the plane landed at Newark Airport in August 1978.
Still, the larger meaning is that I fell prey to what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has poignantly called the dangers of the single story. Each destination and moment has many routes to it and many routes out as well. That results in many implications and future prospects. My tendency to narrow it to one was an aspect of being 56 (or 54 or 52 even) and acting like I was 26.
When I was 26, I was a tennis player or a boxer or a marathon runner, a solo athlete on a solitary quest. Now, even though I live alone in a small apartment, I’m more of a quarterback or a pitcher or a point guard, reliant on a team around me. For instance, no quarterback succeeds without a solid offensive line and sure handed receivers. I have come to realize how my life similarly interdependent and that as such class is malleable. It’s helped me realize that sometimes you need emblems to fortify aspirational identification and that all the time you need teammates. It makes tracks much more figurative much less of an absolute.