[Crossposted at CultureKitchen.]
I have a date tonight, first one in about eight months. I’m a little nervous, for both the regular reasons (Will I like him? Will he like me? Will we both sit there suffering in silence?) and another reason that feels even more prominent at the moment. He owns a business that has experienced tremendous growth in the past year. I’m a temp who beat the poverty-care line by $20 for an emergency room visit this winter (I did have insurance, though). There’s a bit of a class difference here, and that’s incredibly discomforting for me.
In part, that discomfort comes from what we can’t do. To be honest, at this moment in life, I can’t even afford to go out for a decent dinner, something I really, really enjoy. Right from the start, I have to place limits on what we’re able to do.
He could, of course, pay for dinner if that’s what we chose to do. But that, too, leaves me feeling uncomfortable. It’s not that I don’t like being treated, it’s that I can’t pay for dinner. The difference in ability to pay flows from disparate control over resources. In other words, he’s got more power than I do.
But the power differential is only part of it. It’s a subjective thing as well. A couple friends of mine are talking about buying houses. I’m wondering if I’ll have enough to cover deposit on an apartment later this summer. Some of the daily concerns in our lives are very different. Buying a house is the furthest thing from my mind, indeed I doubt I’ll ever be able to do it as I’m relying very heavily on loans to pay for my graduate education. I’ve got a mortgage worth and it scares the hell out of me.
It’s this feeling of uncertainty (not yet desperation) that’s so disquieting. Not having control over your life, not being able to do the things friends take for granted, worrying daily about whether or not to buy that extra soda…it can wear on you. There’s a line in Michael Franti’s song “Rock the Nation”:
but do you feel me when I say I feel pain everyday
when I see the way my friends gotta slave
and never get ahead of bills they gotta pay
no way no way!
Franti’s overall song describes a situation much more desperate than the one I find myself in. I’ll get by, and I’ve got a future career (committee willing) that will allow me to do some of those things I so enjoy and can no longer afford to do. Others are far from that lucky. I feel weird writing about being poor, since I do teach college…I am a professional and I’ve got it a lot better than a lot of other people. I have worked as a Professor and have made a fairly decent living. Right now, I’m not. However, there are also a lot of folks in situations similar to mine, eking out a living, managing to tread water, keep a roof over our heads and food in our stomachs, to survive. That work can be tiring; treading water is exhausting. Do it long enough and your legs can give out, your head sink below the surface, and your lungs fill with water. It’s easy to drown if no life preserver is ever thrown out.
I still remember the first (and only) time I flew business class (they’d forgotten to give me a seat assignment, so I got this one as the plane was boarding). I didn’t know how to act. I didn’t know the drinks were free when I was boarding (I did figure it out by dinner time), and that’s why I refused them (who wants to pay for overpriced airline drinks?) It was great! I actually had enough leg room. And at the beginning, it was incredibly uncomfortable. I’m not “of” the people who usually sit up there, and I’m always aware of that.
More than anything, this post is about the little ways that this can enter our subjectivity. My feelings of not quite being able to pull ahead; of, yes, intimidation and inferiority with a potential date of means; the fact that I spent my elementary school years living in a trailer and cringe when I hear “trailer trash”; all these things are related. They flow, in part, from my own class-based experiences and they shape the ways I interact with people.
I’m not sure where this is going, to be honest. I’m just trying to play with this, to figure out the discomfort, to figure out what to do about it. And I hope it doesn’t fuck up the date.