The Persistence of Social Class

Despite a University of Chicago education, several books published, international travel, a two-story house in a “nice” neighborhood with sidewalks . . .  I am still a working-class kid away from home.  Some little element in each day reminds me of that situation, and I mostly just chuckle or shake my head and let it slip by.  But a recent speaking engagement in an upper-class venue left me with full-out culture clash.  Let me hasten to say that everyone treated me kindly and no offenses were committed.  This is about the signs I nevertheless note–subtle or bold–that remind me of my displacement.

I drove my 1999 Camry with the fading bumper sticker honoring “The Labor Movement: The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend” (It’s an American-built Camry, so I had assumed it was UAW work, but I was, sadly, wrong) to a part of the metro area I rarely visit: an area of cute shoppes and sailboat harbors and mansions with sprawling lawns.  As I turned into the country club where the event was scheduled, I realized how seldom in my life I have been welcomed beyond “Private Road” signs.  Even this time, I went into furtive breathing mode. I pulled into the parking lot, put up my umbrella to keep off the few sprinkles of rain, and walked maybe 50 yards to the entrance, where others were stopping under a portico and turning their cars over to valets who then parked them in the lot.

I had dressed in my professional outfit for my talk:  my “good” black rayon pants and a linen jacket.  I hadn’t fully “dressed up,” which means wearing pantihose, but had I done so, I would still have been underdressed.  I don’t know where you buy clothes made of the fabrics and cuts I saw in the crowd.  I never see clothes like that at Opitz Outlet or Marshall’s–not even at Macy’s or Ann Taylor.  Having grown up with a mother who sewed, I have never become accustomed to clothes shopping, and I rarely even look at the non-sale racks.  I guess my wardrobe of overstocks and last season’s leftovers will always mark me.  So does my wash-and-wear brown hair with its few gray highlights.  Why do I rarely see so many evenly tanned women with champagne blonde pageboys brushed straight back off their faces?  Do they sequester themselves in their own space, as I guess I must in mine?

Another speaker at the event taught us how to tell our more valuable antiques from our other things.  If we look at the bottom of china pieces we got from our parents and there is no date or origin noted, that means it came into the U.S. before 1880.  The same goes for silver.  The china I got from my family is one quarter of the Royal Copenhagen factory seconds my grandma bought when she visited Denmark 47 years after her emigration.  I don’t have any silver. The speaker urged us to tell our children whatever we know about the things we pass on to them.  I know that the one brown melmac cup remaining in my cupboard was part of a set my folks got as grocery store premiums.  I think my kids already have the silverplate utensils my mom got by saving Betty Crocker cake-mix labels.  I wish I knew the provenance of the heavy red glass bowl she used interchangeably for potatoes or jello.  Which daughter will claim my dad’s dinnerpail, which sits in a sacred spot in my dining room?

My own talk and reading went fine, I think, although it got off to a slow start.  When my subject is Packinghouse Daughter, I like to open with a census of my audience.  There were no other packinghouse daughters in this group.  When I asked who had grown up in a food processing town, no hands shot up.  After I offered some examples of food processing, I got two hands. Only one woman grew up on a livestock farm.  I didn’t ask about blue collar parentage or union families.  This audience had not been expected to read the book in advance, but I was pleased to learn that 5 women had, and they responded to it thoughtfully and even with some passion about my story. I would like to have continued the conversation, and folded in the 5 other women who bought copies from me.

Only after my talk was over did I realize that the program had misprinted the book’s title.  I was introduced at lunch as the author of The Meat Packer’s Daughter, which would make me the daughter of Thomas Wilson or Jay Hormel or Philip Armour—just one of the bunch, not the alien I turned out to be.

3 comments to The Persistence of Social Class

  • Jim Johnson

    Wow! Just, Wow! You poor thing!

    Had you asked, I could have told you a long time ago that the Japanese “transplant” factories are not unionized. There is some good and some bad involved in that fact.

    Hang in there!

  • Neil Berg

    You are better than most of those people.

  • Cheri

    I wouldn’t make that claim. I was brought up, of course, to think that working-class people were more virtuous than the rich because we did without material things and we didn’t (directly) use anyone else’s labor. It was a mix of class pride and the needle’s eye aspect of Christianity. It’s harder to be smug when you take a global view. I fill my gas tank with the world’s oil, and tacitly tolerate dictators in the Middle East and pollution in the Gulf of Mexico. I drink coffee, which uses up land that could produce food for Latin Americans and Africans. But I’m not smug enough to think a hybrid car will exonerate me. Its battery requires rare earth elements, and greater demand will destroy other landscapes.

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