What We Write about When We Write about Class
Posted by unavitavagabonda
Center for Working Class Studies Conference
After yesterday’s poetry reading, and especially after listening to peoms by Joe Weil (“For Bro,” in particular) and John Gilgun (especially “Counting Tips“), I felt as though I wanted to write something about my mother. Or maybe what it is, is that I was wondering what gave me credibility/credence here as a working-class writer – or even as a working-class person. In a tangible, visible, palplable sense, I mean. Yeah, I think that’s it.
I have the sense that some here feel pressured to “perform” their class via their speech, their dress, their mannerisms, by what they choose to tell or not to tell about their lives, their upbringings, their current life and work situations…. We talk about “mixed race.” Is there such a thing as mixed class? Or can you forget your class for a while, especially in a setting like this one, only to come back to it later? Since it is essentially invisible, how do you show your colors to others of your kind?
In 1999, I drove out here to the conference from New Mexico in my 1986 pickup and arrived with the bed packed with boxes and fossil gear like the Beverly Hillbillies, the white paint all but invisible under layers of mud and road dust, the grill and hood encrusted with bug guts. G___, who had rented a car at the Akron airport, took one look at Mr. Truck and said, “You’re more working class than me!” She was joking, but there’s always truth in jokes. Is renting a car “un-working class?” Certainly it’s a sign of disposable income, but everyone at the conference has at least some disposable income or they wouldn’t have been able to attend. In the end, I spent more on gas on the roundtrip between New Mexico and Ohio than she spent on her rental car.
A few months ago, after I’d gotten back to San Francisco, I was picking up a bookshelf that I’d bought for next to nothing at a going-out-of-business sale at one of those fancy “home decor” places in the South of Market. Of course, I was driving Mr. Truck. While I was waiting for my shelf to come up on the loading dock, I noticed this yuppie couple casting dirty looks at me and Mr. Truck. The late-20s white boy in the duo (40-dollar Docker khaki shorts plus Top Siders with no socks) whispered to his late-20s “I’m an assistant district attorney” white-girl girlfriend, “The only thing missing is the gun rack.” I did what I could under the circumstances: I burped really loud.
Anyway, my mother: The years of bartending. Her at work at 10 am to let the drunks in. The guys who were always there. The ones who stayed all day. “Her” regulars. Me going there after school to sit in a corner and drink Cokes until it was time to go home because there was no babysitter and, anyway, I liked it. The way everything smelled like cigarettes, especially her clothes when she came home. The songs on the jukebox – often Patsy Cline, always sad. The quarters she had painted with red fingernail polish and kept in a beer glass to give to her favorite customers so they could play the jukebox for free, and then the man who came to service the jukebox once a week would give her back the quarters painted red. Her efforts to decorate the bar for all of the holidays. The sadness of that. The bedgraggled decorations. Her wearing a cardboard hat covered with green foil, like a leprechaun, for St. Patrick’s Day. The Christmas decorations in the dim lounge light. The black cat cut-outs for Hallowe’en.
Her washing glasses: the four sinks for dunking them first into soapy water, then into clean water for the first rinse, then the disinfectant, and finally the last rinse and up onto the racks where they dried. All the water was hot and you could see the steam rising up. Sometimes she wore gloves, but not if the bar was busy and she was in a hurry. The first sink, the one with soapy water, had these rods that came up out of the bottom. They were wrapped in some kind of sponge material and you stuck the glasses on them upside down and squeegeed them around. My mom could do four at once, two in each hand. She was proud of remembering everybody’s usual drink, so they didn’t have to ask the second time they came in. She told stories of infamy and bad behavior and grumpy, unreasonable bosses who didn’t understand what she was trying to do or what it was like to work behind the bar. She depended on tips. She thought it was good work being a bartender and that I should do it, too.
Is class only about working? That is: Is writing about class only writing about working? That seems to be the bias here. Also that working means industrial work, manual labor — steel mills, the factory floor. Has no one explained that such work barely exists anymore, that that’s not where the working class went? That not all of us who escaped one kind of working-class labor managed to find better work, just different?
The student at the computer next to me here in the lab at Youngstown State ate an Arby’s sandwich at the computer, licking his greasy fingers and then touching the keyboard, which pissed me off, and now he’s looking at internet porn. I feel like punching up some pictures of big spurting dicks on my screen so I don’t have to force myself not to look out of my right eye at wet, split booty, which is all over his. I can’t exactly tell if I like being here – at the conference, in Ohio. I feel like I’m floating outside of myself. Maybe I’ll walk down to Arby’s and get my own greasy sandwich, and see if that anchors me to the earth.