I have spoken before about our decision to not celebrate Christmas. When I last wrote about it 16 months ago, I was on the verge of something:
This year Jie-jie has again been saying that she wanted to celebrate Christmas but when I asked her what she meant she said that she wanted the chance to shop for others and give presents. It just so happened that that very morning I had received an email about a community program that matches neighbors with other neighborhood families who would like help with gift-giving. So, I signed us up.
Tomorrow morning I will be taking Jie-jie to meet the family she is providing for (although I decided not to tell her that she is providing their Christmas presents until after we meet them) and then we will shop for them.
I have not written a word about this since. Not because it wasn’t blogworthy, but because it was unmentionable. Here is what happened (details changed to protect the folks’ identity).
In the end I decided to leave Jie-jie at home for my first meeting with the folks we were helping out for Christmas. I decided to feel things out. I thought the whole thing was odd from fairly early on. When I emailed the organizer to volunteer for the program, I expected she would get back to me with some helpful, anonymized information (e.g. 2 kids, girls, aged 3 and 5, art supplies, dress-up clothes, winter clothes sizes 4 and 6). Instead, she got back to me with a name (let’s say, Sarah) and a phone number. I was instructed to give Sarah a call and introduce myself so the two of us could work together to come up with a plan of action. I called Sarah and said I was the person who was going to be helping them out. She was very friendly and invited me to stop by and meet her and her family.
I drove to the house at the appointed time, Sunday morning at 11 am. It was not far from my own house, but it was along a busy road. The old farmhouse clearly pre-dated the street that ran just a few feet from the front door. There was a muddy driveway and no steps to bridge the couple of feet between the ground and porch. I hopped up on the porch, which was littered with children’s toys – abandoned dolls covered with ice and mold, a capsized playkitchen, bits of a tea set, random action figures in various states of wholeness. As I walked to the door, a dog started barking. Beside the outer door, a metal screen door with no screen, stood a large plastic garbage barrel almost completely filled with plastic soda (mostly Mountain Dew) bottles – easily a couple of dollars’ worth of “returnables” worth 5 cents each. I opened the screen door, knocked on the inner door, and waited. The inner door had a window. Through the window I could see the kitchen. The linoleum was completely worn away in a path from the door to the kitchen sink and through a doorway to the right. There was no table. The kitchen drawers mostly lacked fronts so you could see that one contained a jumble of tableware, the other was full of plastic bags. Most of the cupboards were missing their doors. Some plates and glasses, not many, were visible on the shelves.
Sarah came to the door and greeted me pleasantly. The dog, a pitbull, came over with a friendly wag. Sarah was about my height, with wavy, shoulder length auburn hair and pale skin marked by the shadows of the freckles she must have had as a child. I would put her in her mid-20s. Sarah invited me in to the living room to sit down. I looked down at my boots covered with driveway mud. I wanted to remove my muddy shoes. Although I grew up in a house where we tended to keep our shoes on, that was ages ago.
“Should I take off my boots? They’re a little muddy.”
“No. Don’t worry about it.”
I followed Sarah into the livingroom, still feeling self-conscious about the boots. The air was warm and stale, smelling of old baseboard heaters and cigarette smoke. The tan carpet bore the stains of other shoes and I followed the treads of past feet toward the sofa. The sofa cushions were all askew and falling over the edges. The dog had clearly nibbled the piping off some of them. Sarah invited me to take a seat. I thought it might be rude to straighten up the sofa before sitting so I perched myself on the least precarious cushion, my legs doing most of the work of keeping me from sliding to the floor.
There was a dining table with one chair. The other three chairs were scattered about the room. Around the table movie posters decorated the walls. There was a closed door near the table (the basement? a closet?). Two holes had been punched in the door. The drywall near the door had also been punched in. There were a few end tables. On them stood ashtrays and beer bottles and cans in various states of emptiness. A large flatscreen TV with a crack running through the center leaned against the wall. In front of that there was a plastic crate with a small boxy television sitting on it and a video game system hooked up to it. A man sat in one of the dining chairs immediately in front of the television. He was playing a videogame. He did not look up or acknowledge my arrival. I saw only his brown hair and profile. Sarah introduced the man as her brother, Tom, and then she introduced her mother, Paula. Paula was sitting in another dining chair. She was smoking a cigarette. Her long gray hair was drawn up in a ponytail. Like Sarah and Tom, Paula was dressed in sweatpants and a t-shirt.
“Sorry about the mess,” Paula said with a gravelly voice, indicating the bottles scattered about with a wave of her hand, “We had some people over last night.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” I answered, making sure to keep my voice casual and that I smiled a smile I could feel all the way to my eyes.
And in the minute or so that I observed everything I have just described, I developed the strangest feeling – a sort of comfortable familiarity in the face of the discomfort. Putting it to words it would be something like this, “Ah… I know places like this – old and used living spaces. I know this smell of cigarettes and decaying things. I remember the marks of fists on walls and doors. The clutter, the posters, the sagging furniture.” Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t that my childhood home was exactly like that - there were some important differences, but there were some similarities, too. In comparison to the way I live now, my childhood home was not so far from that and I had close acquaintances who lived in even more similar conditions. And then I realized how long I had been gone from such places and their people – so long that I had basically forgotten that they existed. In the midst of the awareness that what was once familiar had become foreign and uncomfortable, I was confronted with my own self.
“Who the hell am I, anyway?”
And as I chatted with Sarah and Paula about what I could do to help them provide the children of the house with a happy holiday, I could visualize myself sitting there primly – skinny jeans, black leather boots, designer glasses, still wearing my wool coat (no one had offered to take it but that should not have stopped me from making myself at home).
“I am the rich lady.”
Sarah and Paula were kind and friendly and I responded in kind. As we discussed potential gifts for the kids, I got a sense of the culture clash that I would be navigating. Sarah listed the electronics that the kids wanted (hand-held game systems, etc) and their favorite characters (anything spongebob or dora). Inwardly I groaned as I imagined how I would reconcile my values to and justify to my daughters purchasing things they know I would never buy for them, my own children.
“Who the hell am I? I am the rich lady.”
Tom’s 8-year-old son entered. He had just walked to a gas station to buy breakfast. He sat, not at the table, but on the floor by the TV and proceeded to add about 1/2 cup of sugar to a small coffee. He stirred, sipped, and then took a bite of a jelly donut.
Sarah and Paula were smoking when Sarah’s preschool-aged daughter, just waking up, came down the stairs, coughing and sniffling through a stuffy nose.
“Poor kid,” Sarah said as she put down her cigarette to give her daughter a warm hug and then send her to get a donut from her cousin, “She hasn’t been feeling well. She’s been having so many ear infections and throat problems. She’s getting tubes in her ears next week.”
I expressed my sympathy for the struggles of parenting sick children. “Maybe put out your goddamn cigarette and offer some healthy food.” my inner rich-bitch was saying.
During our conversation I took notes about gifts. I had plenty of ideas. I stood up to go – anxious for the relief that returning to my own world would provide. Sarah thanked me for coming and suggested that we should get our kids together for a playdate after the holidays. I said that would be nice even though I knew it would never happen. How was I supposed to tell her that we were going to spend the holidays in Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Bangkok? We weren’t coming back to the US afterwards but were instead going to be in Sweden for the next 7 months while a dogsitter lived in our house.
“I am the rich lady.”
As I moved toward the kitchen. Tom spoke up and made it clear that he knew exactly who I was.
“We could use a new flatscreen, ” he said, still not turning his eyes from the screen “and the kids want ipod touches.”
Sarah blushed. Paula did not react.
“I’m sorry,” I replied, “There is no way I can do that. We don’t even have those things.”
“Liar. If you skipped the Hong Kong ballet, you would save enough for those ipods. It just doesn’t fit your values.”
I took so many things from this experience but the one that I want to focus on right now is the experience of class.
It began when middle school tracking placed me with kids who came from families that were better off. When I was in college, I would go home over breaks and have folks make fun of my vocabulary. “Why do you use such big words?” they would say. “You’re not like us anymore, if you ever were,” they were telling me. But then I would get it from the other side, too. “You’re not from here?!” the wife of a prominent Chicago scientist who summered on my island home said in shock after she struck up a conversation on the basis of my UChicago t-shirt and learned that I was at home. “People like you aren’t supposed to make it so far,” she was telling me. It has continued to this day. “So when are you selling the house?” our friends asked when we tell them about our impending move. “Oh, we’re going to keep it and summer here,” I reply. “Oh, you’ll summer here. How lovely.” came the mocking rejoinder. “People like us don’t ‘summer.’ We work. This is our community, it isn’t a summertime playground for the leisure class,” they are telling me. And from the other end: “That neighborhood is a good choice for people of modest means like yourselves. The people I know who are doctors and public interest attorneys – people who, like you, make a good living but are not rich – live there.” “You’re not wealthy. You don’t even know what wealth is,” they are telling me. True. All of it true.
Class inequality is something we don’t like to speak of in personal terms – as an everyday fact that is probably the most impactful characteristic of the lived context of our daily lives. When we do speak of class, we do it in moral terms – either defending our moral turf vis-a-vis the exploitive, self-interested behavior of the wealthy or pointing out our virtue in making the smart and healthful personal and professional choices that yielded financial security. I think we need to start talking about class as an everyday fact – an obstacle to health and happiness, a chasm between understandings, the insider wisdom and practices that mark our positions.
How did I manage Christmas for Sarah and her family? I felt profoundly conflicted. Should I buy the things that I wanted Sarah’s children to have (art supplies, warm clothes, healthy food, books, toys for imaginary play) or the things that Sarah, and I suspect her children as well, recognized as good things to have (electronics and character merchandise)? Who the hell was I to decide what Sarah and her kids ought to have? What was the point of throwing away money on toys and electronics for folks who seemed to have a hard time taking care of the ones they already had? What kind of an idiotic, liberal elitist snob was I for wanting to give my children a lesson in making symbolic but futile gestures of goodwill to poor people? I was sick for a week – and only partly because prolonged exposure to cigarette smoke usually gives me a sinus infection.
I bought them an assortment of things that balanced their desires with my values (e.g. batteries and learning games for their electronic gadgets, spongebob toothpaste and board games, art supplies, dolls to replace the moldy ones on the porch, winter clothes, no ipods). My children wrapped the presents. I delivered them to Sarah at her house, refusing the invitation to visit by saying, truthfully, that I had to be somewhere. Sarah sent me a lovely card. I often see her and her children around town. I avoid her when I can and blush profoundly as I stammer out a greeting when I can’t. She hasn’t invited me again. I suspect she understands I have rejected the offer of friendship even if she doesn’t know the reasons behind it. I can hardly understand them myself.