From poverty, that is. Throughout most of my adult life, I’ve had to rediscover periodically the extent to which people who have had no direct connection to poverty simply don’t get it.
Over the weekend, I spent a lot of time with an old friend who had, comparatively speaking, a privileged upbringing. I was telling him about the long multi-generational climb out of poverty that my family has worked through, but I felt that my point remained somehow elusive. Part of my story is that I have enough formal education that people often think I come from money. Finally I showed my friend the photo that accompanies a post about my experience in grad school with a book that forced me to take a hard look at where my father came from. The people in the picture are, left to right, my father, my aunt Thelma, my grandmother, my aunt Toni and my aunt Mary.
The house is the background is the place where my father grew up and where my grandparents lived until my grandfather died in 1967. During my childhood years, the house got a coat of paint and an indoor toilet. Otherwise, the place remained as it had been, right down to the slate sink in the kitchen and the braided rug my grandmother had made from scraps of fabric.
When he saw the picture, my friend grew quiet for a few minutes as he apparently considered things about me that he hadn’t known before. The implications are important. For example, I’ve never felt at home around the wealthy because they mostly bore me to madness. I don’t play golf. I don’t belong to a country club. I don’t go jetting off to Biarritz. Instead, I do my own yardwork and most home repairs. I’m a passable cook, and I always have time to talk to people. For many years, I changed the oil in my car. I often iron my own shirts. In short, I am, as my mother used to say, a person of the common clay.
Last December, just before Christmas, I joined a pickup quartet of carolers hired to sing at a holiday party hosted by some very, very wealthy folks in Scarborough. We were given only the address of the place, and the host and hostess did not introduce themselves to us. We never learned their names and were paid through a booking agent. They were apparently wary of being contacted by the likes of us.
Years ago, I probably would have been annoyed by this, but last December I found I didn’t care at all. The host gave us a quick tour of the public areas of the house, including his six-car garage, but his purpose seemed to be to demonstrate his wealth. The hostess dithered over us for a few minutes and then began to take the evening’s catering crew to task about something or other. Her purpose seemed to be to assert the privilege and power to which she felt entitled because of her social standing.
Now, I’m about the same age as the hostess, and in answering her questions about the quartet I spoke to her as an equal. After a minute or two of this, I noticed affronted regality building up in her eyes. I cut the conversation short because I didn’t want to listen to anything she might have to say to me about it.
Did I understand with whom I was dealing? No, lady. You didn’t give a name.
The invited guests, even those in their 20s, were cut from the same cloth as the host and hostess. All of them were at ease having servants around and never, ever spoke to or made eye contact with any of us lowly singers and servers.
I spent a fair amount of time talking to the servants. I stayed in school longer than most of them, but they are still my people.
I suspect that a lot of this dawned on my friend for the first time when he looked at that photo of my father.