Taking off my mask…nope I am not like you at all

I have a secret to share with you, of course the fact that I am putting it on this very public blog means it will no longer be a secret but that is okay. I go through most of my days feeling like a fraud, a fake, an impostor. Oh, on the surface I look like your average college educated middle class person (do they really even exist anymore? Or is that the lie we tell ourselves because we can’t stand the idea that we are no longer in the middle but we didn’t rise to the top?), I have a job where to a large degree I have total autonomy, I live a reasonably sized house, have access to a car that is not a jalopy. That’s the sort of shit we see and assume that means folks are fine. Really that is quite silly. In this economy there are people driving nice cars, hoping and praying the repo man doesn’t show up and are crossing fingers and toes they can get their home loans modified. Yet when we see these folks, we have no idea and again assume they are like us.

In the past week or so there have been several instances both in my day to day off line life as well as my on line life where it was assumed I was just like everyone else. In one instance, I actually had someone try to explain to me the lives of the poor; I nearly laughed but instead wore my mask of the middle class all the time feeling my guts churning and temper rising.

See, I may not emphasize it a great deal on this blog though I have shared this in the past, but I grew up poor, if it was a good year we were working class but really we were poor. Oh, my parents being young turned it into a fun game, but looking back, there is no mistaking the fact that we were poor. I am talking getting vittles at the food pantry poor, shit; I have only recently started eating English muffins. Why? Because there was a period of time when I was a kid we ate a lot of them because that is what the pantry gave us. There was also the time the pantry gave us chocolate syrup and my folks scraped up enough cash to buy some ice cream so we could have a treat, only to discover that the chocolate syrup had expired, chocolate syrup gone bad has a smell you never forget. I can assure you in the 25 years since that incident I still remember it clear as day.

I also remember when we lost our apartment and moved into a homeless shelter for six months, it was transitional shelter run by Catholic Charities and two nuns who I imagine are long gone. I remember group meals with a host of characters, “shopping” for clothes from the donations that came in. Yeah, I am a card carrying member of the grew up poor club and those lessons don’t ever leave you. I know another fellow blogger and Maine resident who had a similar upbringing and believe me no matter how far away you are from that grinding poverty, it colors your life. Hell, I only recently stopped hoarding food though I will always buy toilet paper in bulk as I never ever want to have to wipe my ass with newspaper or scraps again.
That said, I must admit the level of classicism and assumptions that I see in my day to day life sometimes make me want to scream. I recently read this piece and its funny because while on paper I am squarely middle class, never mind I am going bankrupt and my personal net worth is like negative two hundred thousand dollars plus but because I present as a middle class person that is what I am treated like. The fact is in my personal financial life I am very much like the Cracked piece in part because when you do grow up and break free from the poverty it travels with you and you never quite leave it behind.

In my case I did finally make it to college, but I graduated with a shitload of debt and not nearly as much social capital as I really needed to advance my career. Turns out moving to Maine despite the low paying gigs did a lot more for me professionally than I would have expected. It’s a lot easier to connect with folks when you live in a state with a small population. I truly doubt I would have landed my first Executive Director position at 31 had I stayed in Chicago since I didn’t have social capital. Yet in Maine, to some degree I got a do-over, and its been helpful yet most of us don’t get a do-over in this highly rigged game called life.

This week I will be writing about classicism and poverty, if anyone is interested in submitting a guest post on those topics I would love to hear from you.

9 thoughts on “Taking off my mask…nope I am not like you at all”

  1. Wow. This really resonates with me. Though I grew up in a middle class environment, from time to time I got little glimpses of what my parents sacrificed so that I wouldn’t have to FEEL poor. But many Americans right now, when you add up their net worth and their assets are economically poor. But because we can get nice, shiny things from China and other countries at a cheap price, people think we’re NOT poor. Because after all, if you have an Xbox and a Mercedes, you’re not really doing all that bad right?

    While working at a bank, my sister used to tell me horror stories of people who, at first glance seemed prosperous, but then you look into their credit and they owed hundreds of thousands and sometimes MILLIONS. I too, am apart of this class of people who reads like a cosmopolitan Chicagoan….until you realize that I spent over $100,000 on my education, much of this in loans and some of it in my own money and have no career to speak of. I too, left college with little social capital, because while others were networking, I was actually working…at a job to pay rent and other expenses. Now too late, I realize that who you know is just as important as the degree itself.

    Just recently I began making headway by becoming a partner with a friend in a company, and now I’ve begun to hob-knob with the very people who could have made my dreams of that particular career path happen. What I’ve realized is that poverty is just not economic, it’s social. Lots of rich kids have the connections to get the great job that many children of lower class families can only dream of. Hell, I spent years sitting on a great degree with tons of experience and the ability to speak more than one language under my belt. What I encountered was not just a glass ceiling, but a sticky floor. That is where many, many people find themselves.

  2. Thank you for your kind words! It is a little scary to put this out in the open since I knew a few folks from my professional life that read my blog. Yet I believe my upbringing really influences my professional life on so many levels. I understand the so called poor choices my families make because I lived it and that is something no social work class can adequately teach in my opinion.

  3. I think you are like most of us.
    Everyday is another battle just to hold on.
    Very few of us are born with that big silver spoon in our mouths.
    But when you think about it I guess I feel very proud of myself.

  4. That was really honest of you! I didn’t grow up poor. But moving into a smaller town did the opposite for us. Now with our clients so far away in Jerusalem (we live in Tsfat, the edge of Israel close to Lebanon/Syria border), they some how feel they don’t have to pay us right away and we can’t get in their faces about it. Thus at times we’ve spend almost a month with zero incoming money! By the time we get money the fridge has already been bare for days, the kids ask me for food and I tell them “go to bed!” as an excuse. Even the reserve that we save for such an occasion, is just not big enough to carry us to the end of those dry spells.

    Don’t feel alone. I am sure there are many others in that same situation. I am sure its quite liberating to be truthful!

    Honor to you for having the courage to put this out.

  5. I just recently had to tell my ex. about how difficult it was for me to raise our son with very little financial and emotional support from him.
    This dead beat father had the nerve to tell me I made enough money, he had no idea what I earned. He returned to his home country remarried and had three kids. It hurted me to my core to learn that the other wife was a stay at home mom; while I had to work a full-time and sometimes a parttime job.

    Ladies, use caution when dealing with foreign born men.

    Most secretaries do not earn a good salary. I lived pay check to pay check. Thank God, I will be graduating in five semesters and moving onto a better position. However, a new position could never wipe away the struggles of this single mom.

    At the moment, we are trying to settle some past due child support. This guy had the nerve to tell me he did not owe me anything. He divorced me in 2009, that is roughly 25 years. As one can see the dead beat father has brought me through alot.
    After all these years, he was trying to insinulate that our son was not his. Yet, he was looking at our son as a possible kidney donor, our son isn’t buying his game. He should ask his eldest daughter, the one he supported her entire life.
    LOL, I did tell him that I wished I would have had my son for a man who really cared if his child was safe and secure. He has not emailed/called since May 30th. Hmmm, was it something I said?

  6. I can relate. Mom used to make pilgrimages to a warehouse store that sold flats of dented cans of food, & my wardrobe (what wasn’t homemade) mostly came from “the drop box”, where people donated clothing for mentally handicapped people to cut into rags. Mom put a good face on it, but she definitely struggled. But when I visited Dad, he & s’Mom could take us to nice restaurants sometimes, & we’d go skiing. Their clothes mostly came from LLBean & Patagonia.
    I learned how to be poor, & also how to pine for material things & a “nicer” lifestyle… very mixed blessings.

  7. Class is such an interesting and subtle thing, too. You can’t tell folks’ wealth from their consumption patterns, and you can’t define class based on wealth alone, I find. Dh and I joke that we are the ‘penniless gentry’ b/c of our upbringing and outlook vs. Our finances. But he is 1 gen removed from a small dairy farm and I am 1 gen removed from independent wealth. We all carry so much baggage. I love the idea that it might be _easier_ to reinvent yourself in a small place.

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