When I was in seventh-grade French, I learned a new word: fauché(e). It means "broke." The teacher explained the difference like this: If you don't make a lot of money, and don't have anything in the bank, etc, then you say, "je suis pauvre
," I am poor. But the richest person in the world could be stuck without any cash on him, and then he'd say "je suis fauché.
I grew up lower-middle-class in a very upper-middle-class town. My dad is, for all intents and purposes, a skilled laborer; my mother didn't work until I was in high school, when she started doing entry-level work for the school district. We owned a house, but a smallish one on a mixed-race block. Money was never absent, but it was tight, and I knew it. In retrospect, it wasn't that uncommon a situation, but it was mine, and I felt fairly alone in it at the time.
I grew up seething class anxiety. I didn't dress like rich kids, shop like rich kids, eat like rich kids. Part of my anxiety came across as criticism of the materialism of the rich. The other part came across as terror of being identified as other. I grew up near the King of Prussia Mall, which is a huge, elegant temple of shopping. It has plush chairs, not benches. Marble columns and floors. Versace and Tiffany's and Burberry. I was terrified of the King of Prussia Mall. I went there for the first time with The Wife, who belonged firmly on the other side of that class divide that I saw. I hid behind her. I had panic attacks. I couldn't be in that mall. It scared me too much.
Then I went away to get my Ivy League degree, and I met real rich people. Like serious, serious richness. Richness beyond my wildest dreams. We were on a level in a way we hadn't been in high school, because now we were all the elite of a nation together. And I was better than most of them.
I also met poor folks. The people I organized with on a daily basis came from the backwoods south and from urban ghettos, and from countries on the other side of an exchange rate. Among these folks, I came from privilege. So I came to understand both that there are real live rich people out there, who are not as scary as I thought, and something concrete about what poverty looks like, and how it differed from my experience.
Now I live in a lower-middle class neighborhood that might be transitioning upward, in the middle of a giant concentration of wealth that still makes me nervous. Sure, now I can cope with it, but that doesn't mean that my inner seventeen-year-old doesn't get a little nervous when I go out for lunch on the Upper East Side. It's just that, now, I know how to dress for it. It's true: I have different outfits in my closet for what part of the city I'm going to. The jeans with holes are fine if I'm working in the garden or walking down to the drug store or dollar store; the straight-men's jeans are fine for babysitting or working a Co-op shift; the gay men's jeans and ribbed tank tops are good for going to class; if I'm heading uptown, I've got button-down shirts to layer over top.
But I'm sitting here, in the middle of this fabulous wealth and this warm and not rich neighborhood, and I can tell you: Je ne suis pas pauvre. Mais je suis fauchée.
I'm occasionally astounded by how much the three of us bring in, combined. All told, it's something like $75K a year. That's a fabulous amount of money to me, even though it's not a lot per person. Living in this city, though, and wanting those things that belong properly to folks of our aspirational class, we don't have much left over.
So I think about everything we can do to save money. I'm the one out there growing our own produce in the summer and canning it for the winter. I'm the one who pulls the last of whatever is about to go bad out of the fridge and cooks with it, so we don't have to buy more food. I'm the one who wonders what she's going to do now that all of her jeans either don't fit or have holes.
Why am I the one? Because I'm the housewife. The Wife gets up in the morning and goes to her ten-to-six office job; the Boy's a personal assistant and professional dancer, so he's out of the house until 9 nearly every night. I sit home alone, writing, reading, thinking. And cooking. And gardening. And scrimping.
I'm thinking of this today because of Aunt B's
post about wanting to hold on to the pleasures of middle-class life, and not give them up in order to 'save the world.' She catches some of the tension in this: simultaneously one spends less to be ethical (turning off the lights) and spends more (buying organic soap). We simplify our lives through consumption (witness Real Simple magazine, which provides hundreds of ways a month to spend money to get simpler). If we want to live right, we have to simultaneously have money and give it up.
One of the ways to do this--and the way that the three of us have done it--is to disaggregate social from economic class. We each renounced the economic status that could have come to us as graduates of elite Eastern colleges. However, we maintained the social status of solidly middle-class America: we need wireless internet and a DVR and organic orange juice. In order to do all of that, we have to scrimp in some places and spend in others. We need to put more work in to be able to get some things that we could have effortlessly, if we rejoined our social and economic class. Seriously, folks, if I got a job in i-banking rather than a PhD, all these troubles would just go away.
I live the way I do (I won't speak for my family) because it allows me to be in touch with my politics. I would rather seek justice than cash. I want to live in a morally defensible relationship to the environment and the people around me. But, in order to make these moves, I have to replace the money I could be making with my own housework, so that I can help maintain my household's social class, while we all collectively renounce our economic class.
And here I am reminded of brownfemipower
's posts she called "Poverty Diaries." She wrote
Life is so much slower for poor people. A bus ride to anywhere is going to take at least 40 min’s. Cooking everything from scratch means supper is often started the night before. A quick trip the grocery store is replaced with a day long biking marathon to buy as many groceries as can be stuffed into the kid carrier. Dial up often takes minutes to load pages (seriously, the best thing we did was put the computer into the kitchen–I can clean/cook while a page loads). Clothes hang dry on the line out back, and microwavable food must be cooked in the oven.
Going slower like this is pleasant in many ways–a whole life time of “need to do stuff” is eliminated by the sole fact that there is no transportation, no phone, no money. But at the same time, a slower life means living closer to the edge than is entirely comfortable. If you forget to turn on the crock pot, it will be a whole day before you can eat that particular meal. If it is raining the day you have planned from grocery shopping–well, so much for food. If you have ants attacking the roots of your plants (as they are currently doing to my corn and sweat peas) it will be a whole year before you can repair the damage to the soil. If your kid breaks her arm, you better pray you have a neighbor who has a car.
Living close to the edge has really helped me see how capitalism (in the beginning) was influenced in large part by fear more than greed. When you’ve been told by your government and your god that you must “conquer the land” and live way the hell out in the middle of no where all by yourself, how scary is it to know that one fuck up, one day of sickness, could lead to your very destruction? How much safer is one allowed to feel knowing that all you need is a little pesticide and some lab made fertilizer to ensure food for the winter?
So here again I have to acknowledge my class status. Sure, I may fight to get my soil to be fertile with the compost from last year's garden, or I may put dried beans in the crockpot rather than buying lots of fancy prepared food. But when push comes to shove, I know how late the Thai place delivers.
There may not be a coherent argument here. This may just be the beginning of a set of thoughts. But the relationship between social class, economic class, women's labor in the home, politics, and poverty is complicated. If we are going to try to eat and live collectively and in just relations to each other, we have to think about these things--and do them together.