Monday, August 18, 2008

I can't be poor - I have a master's degree

I had a master's degree. I had a job. But to feed my three children, I had to swallow my pride and go to a soup kitchen.

The first in Salon's series on life during the recession provoked thought in many, many ways. Here are 10 of the most vivid (note: 10-9 serious, 8-6 glib - in the words of Tom Cruise, 5-1 serious again):

10. $600 does indeed seem remarkably scant for child support for three children.

9. If raising kids is something the majority of Americans will do, why is decent childcare priced like a luxury? (particularly when childcare workers' earnings make teachers look like Russian oligarchs)

8. "Women and men smiled at us, asked us "How much?" and said "Tell me when," then pointed us toward the tables. Along another counter, there was coffee and tea and juice, desserts even...I could tell that whoever made the food had thought about it carefully, had tried to make it nutritious, hearty."

Now that's better service than I've had in a few higher-end restaurants.

"7. (The author's kids) didn't feel ashamed of anything. So they asked questions of everyone, wondered aloud about how the serving dishes kept the food warm, and why there were single desserts instead of the served kind, and where the bathroom was."

When it comes to basics like dinnertime, children can be remarkably chill, big-picture and free of self-referential, socioeconomic angst.

6. "A few months out of the crisis, and with a little money in my pocket, I bought a $3 wedge of brie."

Where'd she get that? Even at Rodman's, I can't find Brie for under $4.50.

5. And to believe in the system when you're at the very bottom, when you've watched the chrome and ink-black SUVs drive by while you're packing your own beater with dried beans and lentils, to believe at that point is fucking painful. You either say the system works and you've earned your place, or you concede that there is something wrong and there might not be any way to fix it.

Making up for the flippancy of item 6. (But please give those recession staples, beans and lentils, a break - what other ingredients would one use to make hearty wintertime chili?)

4. "The previous week, I had swallowed my pride and driven my old Subaru to a local food bank."

I went to something like that when I was in grad school full time, living off my savings with a mortgage to support. It was remarkably healthy - mostly randomly chosen fresh produce - and nothing's better for cooking skills than Googling "What the &*^% do I do with five plums and a bundle of green onions?"

But I always made sure to call it a food co-op, sometimes an organic food co-op if I felt particularly defensive. Never a food bank.

3. "I graduated summa cum laude from my undergraduate program, earned a spot in a top graduate writing program, where I earned a 4.05."

In other words: "I'm not supposed to be here." I thought first of an acquaintance I knew in grad school who let her car get repossessed and risked bankruptcy rather than take a service-level job she regarded as beneath her.

Then I thought of the American belief of education as innoculation against anything bad in the world. First it was the high school diploma. Then the BA. Now it's the master's degree. What kind of post-doc magic wand will the next generation need to wave?

2. "It was the most responsible decision I could have made under the circumstances. Even now, a year later, I'm still struggling to believe that last sentence."

Responsible is good. That this decision - to use available resources to feed her kids - was filled with the shame usually reserved for deep, dark family secrets on soap operas: not so good.

1. "Even Chloe's sullenness was better than what I saw in those other kids, which was an acceptance of the situation and all it implied, all we load it with, all I loaded it with, despite my liberal proclamations."

Generally, we tend to prefer our poor far away - in a tsunami relief effort or Save the Children ad. When they're next door, we don't know how to act. Case in point, during grad school I took a part-time job at Office Max; an Ivy league alum acquaintance stumbled in and gave me the most condescending handshake of my life. This all happened during the last recession - indeed, a big reason motivating my return to scholarship. Another friend seemed to drop members of her social circle based on shifting demographics. "It's good (mutual friends) are moving back home to the Midwest; they'll feel more comfortable where it's more of a blue-collar place."

Obviously (since I'm writing about it years later - even after moving to Chevy Chase - bite me, if you please, folks in paragraph above) this smarts.

And I wasn't even really poor at the time - I was in grad school.


At 1:40 PM, Anonymous Rocky said...

One of the things I really liked about my group of friends in DC was that there wasn't a lot of classism. I suspect that from top to bottom, there was at least 150k in salary difference.

For the most part, I didn't know what people "did" until after I got to know them. Of course, that may be highly unusual for DC.

What is it that you do anyway?

At 2:31 PM, Blogger globalchameleon said...

Can't divulge my workplace or profession here on the blog - sorry!

Despite DC's reputation, I've been lucky to find non-pretentious folks here, too - in fact, we joke when people ask "What do you do?" (Sample answers: "I'm standing here talking to you." "I read, I hike, I watch E True Hollywood Story" you get the point)

There were a lot of these folks where I used to live, too - it's just that the few tools who were the exceptions illustrated my point better in that post:)


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