Tuesday, February 15, 2005

On Being White Trash

I've talked before about being the oldest child of a couple of burger flippers, but I haven't really talked about what it was like, socially, to be the daughter of fast-food employees; however much I enjoyed my time in the restaurants, the kids at school, the people we knew socially, didn't really see it as a terribly enjoyable experience. Fast food was something you got away from, fast.

Fast food was white trash.

I can remember a time for about two years when I'd go so far as to say my parents were "poor," though we'd likely be "lower middle-class" by anybody else's standards, cause we always had enough to eat. For about two years, my parents were paying their bills with credit cards (now that they own their own business, they're doing this again - another one of my eternal battles is figuring out how to figure out money). My sister and I were subsisting primarily on scrambled eggs and macaroni and cheese. I suspect that my aversion for scrambled eggs has something to do with being presented with yet another dinner of scrambled eggs when I was five or six.

Things got better, but when we played show and tell at school, I didn't particular want to bring in my parents. When I was younger, I resented the fact that all of the other kids seemed to have mothers who baked cookies and didn't come home smelling like grease every night. When I'd go over to other kids' houses, their mom cleaned the toilets - in my house, I learned how to clean toilets when I was four.

My mom was always really adament that her kids become self-sufficient. We chose our own clothes every morning (which lasted until the day my sister dressed herself for kindergarten and forgot to wear underwear. My grandmother was horrified, and from then on, she would set out clothes for us every morning and re-dress us when my parents dropped us off at her place). We learned how to cook a remarkable amount of macoroni and cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches (I have an especial fondness for all sorts of cheese, to this day). Every Saturday or so, we cleaned the house, working with our mom from a big to-do list. Whenever we'd go out to restaurants, even if it was just the local diner, my mom would give us a rundown on basic restaurant politeness, napkin over lap, "excuse me," "thank you," and which fork to use (when we were at places with two forks).

"Someday," she'd say, "you're going to go out to a nice place, and you don't want to look foolish." What that meant, really, was "You don't want to look like white trash."

In fact, I've always sort of viewed my family as about one step to the left of white trash. The kids I hung out with either lived in a trailer packed with ten kids or lived in a crapped-out moldy place down the corner, or the dilapedated barn down the street (somebody did finally gut that fucking pigsty and redo it from the inside out).

When my dad worked some weekends for a stump grinding company, my sister refused, refused to have him pick her up from school in "the stump grinding truck" because it was so incredibly white-trash looking a vehicle.

The one time my dad did this, she burst into tears. "What's everyone going to think of me!" she cried. "It's bad enough that when everyone asks, I have to tell them you work at a burger joint!"

The one thing I never, never, learned how to do was dress like anything other than white trash. That's something I've been spending the entirety of my 20s working on. I just don't understand clothes. I don't know how to buy them. It doesn't help that fashion's not made for women who look like me. Throw in the fact that I have no idea what looks decent on me, and it means hours and hours and hours of crappy shopping time and a lot of stuff that makes it home and then gets thrown out when I realize it's way crappier in real life than it was in the store and "Sweet fuck, what was I thinking?"

The last time I went shopping, I went to Nordstrom in downtown Chicago, and I stood in the middle of the shoe store, holding two shoe styles I wanted to try on, feeling incredibly out of place among the Beautiful People who all hustled about looking busy like they belonged there, and nobody was coming up to help me, and I thought, "They can see it, can't they? They can totally see that I'm really white trash. That's why nobody's helping me, that's why --"

"Can I help you, ma'am?"

Er. Yea.

It's funny, though, how the white trash thing still stirs me sometimes. It's one of the reasons I find it so funny to be in these meetings, to put on a suit jacket. There's just this incredible feeling that I don't fit here. I keep waiting for the moment when some hotel clerk yells, "Aha! White trash! I knew it!" and kicks me out of the hotel.

I'm waiting for the corporate dinner where there's a fork I don't know how to use (though to be honest, many of these guys wouldn't know how to use it either). I worry that I'm being too nice to the waitstaff, do they think I'm being condescending?

It's funny, what follows you.

Once I got older, I realized that in fact, my mother had done me an incredible favor by being a working mom, by teaching me early that I needed to figure out how to do shit for myself. I have a friend back home who got married and realized that, in fact, toilets do not clean themselves. Her mother had done all of her laundry, cleaned the house, made her bed, for her entire life. She had no idea how to do any of it on her own, and no set routine. I have another friend who moved out and managed to burn a can of instant soup: she'd never cooked anything before. And there were others, mainly women, but lots of guys I know, who don't understand how to work for a living. Who don't know how to do an interview. Who don't know how to write up a resume. I'd been working informally for the burger joints for years, and done so many crap jobs since I was 16 that I don't even find interviews scary anymore. I clean my house every Saturday (yea, the toilet too). I can cook - sure, mostly only what can be cooked in a wok, but I can cook. I learned how to be self-sufficient really quickly. Nobody did it for me. When I moved in with a guy who *wasn't* self-sufficient, problems quickly ensued, cause I ended up playing mom. Let me tell you: I'm never doing anybody else's fucking laundry ever again.

But for the most part, I got a great gift, being the sort of white trash who had two parents who worked their asses off. They knew about work ethic. They knew that even if you fucked up everything else, if you got up and went to work everyday, you'd keep scrambled eggs in the fridge and kool-aid on the table, and some days, that's enough.

8 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Kameron, That was lovely, really good stuff.

Somewhere and somehow as we come to adulthood it's necessary, proper and just to come to the inescapable conclusion that all labor has dignity, as do all laboring people. A good job well done, no matter where it is-- is inherently a good, right and decent thing, and there's not enough people who realize this. People need to be able to live on their wages, no matter if this is a minimum wage job burger flipping at the lowest rungs for all too long. The fact that the min. wage has been declining in relation to inflation and relatively to other costs for the past 25 years is a serious issue that not enough people understand either. It's the cause of untold serious ongoing misery in this country. (Read 'Nickel and Dimed:on (not) getting by in America'. By Barbara Ehrenreich [http://www.henryholt.com/holt/nickelanddimed.htm]).

The experience of poverty is actually shared by many. It really shapes your outlook in life. I've rarely met a successful or passionate artist who grew up in a comfortable, middle class& happy home. The drive of many a business exec. is the fear that they will fall back into the abyss that befell their parents, old and broken before their time, if they survived at all to enjoy an old age. Mine didn't.

On the clothing front, I think this amy have gotten a bit easier actually. You've got your work suits and can dress for that, right? Then you can find one dress or pants suit for serious 'dinners out', (in a pinch the work suit will work here too), then the rest is gravy. I mean seriously, have you given a good hard look at how we dress lately? Whatever works for you will be fine. Find a style and stick with it. If you were rich you could actually hire a 'consultant' to dress you in a certain style and a buyer to buy what you'd look best in. But hey, hard working, multi-millionaire, lucky bastard Steven King still dresses, well like most Mainers do, so what's the problem here?

For most people they barely know how to dress for work, and truth be told for most of the population, that's just fine. No one knows how to work the silverware anymore, really. It's always the object of some mirth at dinners. Laura Bush was wearing white after Labor day at the inaugural, some git in the press noticed, she smiled and waved and they subsequently melted. Really, were mostly over it all. Wear what looks as neat as you want to and what you can find that suits you. Khaki's and a decent shirt or sweater will fit almost anywhere. You'll do fine.

Perhaps in your dotage you can accessorize with all those nifty scarves and bitching handbags that you'll cram full of #4 Bird shot, 'cause nothing says 'I vant to be left alone!' better than 5-7lbs. of shot coming down fast on your noggin', right?


Posted by VJ

Anonymous said...

I grew up in what I would call similar circumstances, albeit different in signifigant ways--suffice to say that eventually I took on the white trash label with pride. It still bothers my mother that I refer to my family and myself as white trash--though I've explained to her again and again that I'm proud of how she raised me mostly as a single working parent.

She's upper-middle class now, due to her hard work and a bit of luck. Still, it does stick with you. I visited her once a few years ago and there she was when I pulled up: In the 'fifth wheel' in the driveway (the upper-middle class version of living in a trailer) watching 'Survivor'. I promptly asked for some macaroni and cheese. 

Posted by jpjeffrey

Anonymous said...

I think the entire goal of Nordstrom is to make you feel like you don't belong there. My dad gives me incredibly expensive, incredibly ugly (well, they'd look good on someone who wasn't me) clothes from Nordstrom each year, and each year I get to tromp on through the aisles and try to get them returned for cash. It's almost always a boatload of cash. The Nordstrom people are almost always very nice and polite.

(My wife actually did this year's christmas gift return, taking back an ugly brown-and-tan-with-horizontal-stripes sweater my dad got -- I was at home doing dude-duty. She asked for cash, and the Nordstrom clerk informed her that she'd have to go to customer service, because the clerk didn't have enough money to do the return. My wife asked how much the ugly sweater was. The clerk said, "Three hundred seventeen dollars." As my wife sputtered and stammered, the clerk smiled, became a human being for a moment, and added, "Yeah, some days it's like hitting your own little jackpot, huh?") 

Posted by Patrick

Anonymous said...

Two pieces of advice on the clothing front:

Most large department stores (not sure what you have in the US) will offer a fashion advisory service. Basically, you book an appointment, they talk to you and check your size. When you come back, they've done all the work - you try on the clothes and buy what you like. Technically, its free, but you are expected to buy a few items. Apparantly very popular with young women who are entering the coporate world and are unsure what to wear, but anyone can use it.

Doing it yourself- check out BBCs What Not to Wear 
Very good at giving advice to non-perfect shapes, and offers suggestions over what is good for different occasions. They also have two books out.

Hope that didn't sound to condescending but I do empathise. It wasn't until I was half way through Uni did I start to *get* how to dress. 

Posted by evelyn

Anonymous said...

Marshall Field's (Oak Brook IL) was still offering that "personal shopper" service in 2000, when I used it to put together clothes for my first professional-level job. I don't know if they still offer it, but it was definitely worth the time and effort. No pressure to buy - no expectation that you'll dump tons of cash - just help finding what you like/need within your budget.

Like you, I'm tall (6'1/2"), so I always have trouble with pants, and sleeves, being long enough. We used to have a really good "tall girl" shop here in Indy, but it closed a few years ago. I don't particularly enjoy shopping in Indy because it's hard for me to find styles I like. I tend to save up to shop when I'm visiting the Chicago area (my parents live in Naperville).

Maybe we could meet up sometime, when I'm in town. You sound like an interesting person in your own right, but besides that, I could offer my services as a clothing critic (I really will tell you what looks good, or doesn't, and why). I do that with my mom.

Glad you're enjoying NJ/NY.  

Posted by Mychelline

Anonymous said...

Wow... again you make me hold my breath and read the relentless truth of my life. I grew up much like you did. To this day I still worry that I somehow look like poor white trash, and that I am fat, I'm certain, makes it worse somehow. Always at the back of my mind is "are they going to notice that I have no class and that I am just faking my way through?" Geeze.

And this: "fear that they will fall back into the abyss that befell their parents" is the motivation for my life. If only I'd used the motivation from that fear sooner!

Anyway, thanks again. 

Posted by Beverly

Anonymous said...

Have you seen this ?  

Posted by Sally

Anonymous said...

All my clothes come from Thrift World. I have a tattoo around my left arm which gets odd looks at the grocery store, and will probably get lots more when the girls start school.

I don't look like any of my friends here - they all look incredibly well-groomed, well-dressed, manicured, pedicured, stylish and confident in that thin, blonde suburban way, and I too keep waiting for a knock on the door. I just tore through this post when I read it, could hardly wait for the next sentence.

We live in a lovely red-brick, manicured, snooty suburb of Dallas, but we're definitely just hanging on to the lower end of the middle class designation....and all this is just fine with me.

My friends, with their big houses and their maids and their expensive hair tell me I look so vibrant and bohemian in my wild thrift store dresses and when I say they cost me $2.99 I say it with a strange sort of white trash pride, if there is such a thing.

I usually wear way too much jewelry when I go to the bar, and most of it's from the dollar store. I love to jingle, and I've got a fine collection of cheap toe rings and ankle bracelets to thrill my gypsy heart.

I think of myself as a wildflower in a bed of heirloom roses....I don't fit in, but damn it, I sure stand out just fine. Who wants to blend in with the crowd anyway?

Posted by bluesmama