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Entering a new world
I grew up in southeastern Virginia in the 1950s. The main social drama in my life, though disguised as normality, was race. My white world was not a world distinguished by class. I had no concept of what class was. Everyone was, basically, the same in terms of income and social standing—if I had known what social standing meant. That social standing and income was, though not excessive, more than enough.
It wasn’t until my parents divorced, and we moved to a small town in Michigan, that I saw a different world.
I was twelve when we arrived in St. Clair, Michigan in 1957. That first year, I went to the local school and met some boys who became my friends.
I was invited to one boy’s house. It was a winter day. Very cold. We went to his kitchen to have some lunch. The kitchen was messy, dishes piled up in the sink. The windows were all covered with that billowing plastic people put on their windows who can’t afford windows that insulate from the cold.
His mother gave us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. She said she worked at the St. Clair Inn, a fancy restaurant in town that was also a place where people came and stayed and looked at the mile-wide St. Clair River from their expensive rooms.
The boy was different. His mother was different. She did not smile. There was no warmth. They were a family with little money. There was no father.
I didn’t want to be part of that world. Nothing about it was appealing to me. It was raw and it said struggle and cheap and just hanging on.
Sometime later, my mother took me and my brother and sister to the St. Clair Inn. Our waitress arrived. She was the boy’s mother. When she recognized us, she blushed and was flustered. I was embarrassed. There she was in her black and white uniform, a mother, like mine, only different. She left and another waitress took over.
I did not want to be around this boy anymore. I felt that just by being myself I was accusing him and his mother of being less. Maybe I did feel they were less. Yes. I was unprepared for the reality of class.
A month or so later, my mother took us and the boy to the one other good restaurant in St. Clair. I didn’t want her to invite him, but she insisted. The boy sat awkwardly at the table, all white linen and multiple plates and rows of silverware banked on either side. He looked at my mother imploringly. He didn’t know which fork and which spoon to use, because there were more than one. He had never seen this before. I can still see his desperate face.
My mother kindly directed him. I have thought since through the years how useless that knowledge is but how awkward it was for him not to have it.
I never went to his house again. I avoided him at every turn.
Here, I want to mention Dorothy Allison. She wrote the novel, Bastard Out of Carolina as well as the nonfiction book, Skin: Talking About Sex, Class & Literature. She is one of the few contemporary writers that I know of who writes about class deeply and directly. Read the short piece, “Context,” in Skin to see what I mean.